Ground beef safety in the spotlight

by Keith Nunes
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NEW YORK — Ground beef processors found themselves in the spotlight on Oct. 3 when The New York Times published an article titled "E. coli path shows flaws in beef inspection." The article traced ground beef implicated in the illness and subsequent paralysis of a now 22-year-old woman who consumed the product in the fall of 2007 and fell ill.

In the weeks following the article’s publication, officials ranging from the secretary of agriculture to the president of the American Meat Institute, commented on the story’s implications and what the government and private industry are doing to ensure the safety of the ground beef supply.

The article also has prompted Senator Kirstin Gillibrand of New York to announce she will propose legislation called the "E. coli eradication act" (see related story on Page 24).

"We can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend’s paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Mr. Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been aggressive in its efforts to improve food safety since President Obama took office and has been an active partner in establishing and contributing to President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group.

"Protecting public health is the sole mission of the U.S.D.A. Food Safety and Inspection Service," Mr. Vilsack said. "F.S.I.S. has continued to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli O157:H7 and the agency is committed to working to reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses caused by this pathogen."

Mr. Vilsack said the U.S.D.A. has launched an initiative to cut down E. coli contamination and, as part of that initiative, stepped-up meat plant inspections involving greater use of sampling to monitor the products going into ground beef. The F.S.I.S. also has started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issuing new instructions to F.S.I.S. employees asking that they verify facilities follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses.

He added that the U.S.D.A. also is looking at how to enhance trace-back methods and plans to initiate rulemaking in the near future to require all grinders, including establishments and retail stores, to keep accurate records of the sources of each lot of ground beef.

Industry continuously improving

Since 2000, the U.S. meat industry has greatly improved the safety of its products, with the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 declining 45% since that year to a rate of less than one-half of 1%, said J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the A.M.I., in a letter to the editor published Oct. 7 in The New York Times.

The newspaper received Mr. Boyle’s letter in response to what the A.M.I. described as "a lengthy one-sided article on ground-beef safety." The trade group said despite a 90-minute, face-to-face interview between Michael Moss, The New York Times reporter, and A.M.I. executives in June and exchanging more than 15 e-mails and phone calls to respond to follow-up questions, the 5,000- word story "excluded all meaningful government data provided regarding the industry’s food-safety accomplishments over the last 10 years."

The A.M.I. and member companies have worked to develop new technologies and processes to enhance meat and poultry safety, Mr. Boyle stressed.

"Using them requires prior approval by the Department of Agriculture," he said. "For example, A.M.I. submitted a petition five years ago to use carcass irradiation — a process to reduce or eliminate pathogens like E. coli — but we are still waiting for the department to initiate a rulemaking on its efficacy."

The meat industry has a simple stance when it comes to E. coli O157:H7 — it wants to eliminate it, Mr. Boyle said.

"But like other facts of nature — from floods to the flu — even when there is a will, there may not always be a way to do it 100% of the time," he said. "Be assured that the industry will not stop trying."

‘It’s a beef carcass problem’

While the beef industry sought to assure the public their operations do not put consumers at risk for sickness from E. coli O157:H7 as suggested in The New York Times article, one industry food-safety expert quoted in the story said the article highlights some real problems in the industry.

"I think it’s a well-written story," said Jim Marsden, professor of animal sciences and industry at Kansas State University and an adviser to the North American Meat Processors Association. He said the story’s essential point, that the beef industry has not done enough to clean up pathogenic adulteration of carcasses and that the regulatory system is not adequately protecting the public health, is valid.

"The elephant in the room is that we’re still producing carcasses that have O157 on them," he said. "This isn’t a ground beef problem. It’s a beef carcass problem."

In the article, Mr. Marsden is quoted on the subject of the difficulty of preventing cross-contamination from meat to other foods in the home kitchen.

"Even if you are a scientist, much less a housewife with a child, it’s very difficult," he told the newspaper, adding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture needed to issue better guidance on avoiding cross-contamination, like urging people to use bleach to sterilize cutting boards.

The article identified several apparent serious lapses in proper food-safety procedure: a lack of testing by processors, packers refusing to sell trimmings to the processors who do test, cost-cutting that also cut safety corners, and ineffective U.S.D.A. inspection and trace-back systems. Describing a specific incident of E. coli adulteration that sickened hundreds of consumers and caused Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old former dance instructor, to lose the use of her legs, the newspaper said: "The U.S.D.A. efforts to find the ultimate source of the contamination went nowhere."

A U.S.D.A. official in the department’s food-safety division, Loren Lange, is quoted saying: "Every time we look, we find out that things are not what we hoped they would be."

Asked whether more stringent regulations could help solve the problem, Mr. Marsden said: "They already have the HACCP regulation. It can be effective. It needs to be enforced. And we need to do a better job."

E. coli eradication act to be unveiled

WASHINGTON — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York plans to introduce the "E. coli eradication act," legislation that would require all facilities manufacturing ground beef to test their product "regularly" before it is ground and again before it is combined with other beef or ingredients.

If ground beef is found to be contaminated a company would be required to dispose of the batch or cook it to a temperature that kills the E. coli. Penalties for companies that do not implement the additional testing mechanisms in processing facilities also will be included in the legislation.

The bill is to be introduced soon, according to Ms. Gillibrand’s office.

Responding to the news of pending legislation, J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the American Meat Institute, said if the beef industry could eliminate E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef by passing a bill in Congress, it would have insisted such legislation be enacted years ago.

"Unfortunately, it’s not that easy," he said.

Mr. Boyle said he appreciates the intent of Ms. Gillibrand’s proposed effort, but not only is it not a food-safety silver bullet, it would actually duplicate tests currently being conducted by the meat industry.

The most effective way to address E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens is to use food-safety strategies throughout the production process, from the farm to the table, Mr. Boyle continued.

"By erecting multiple ‘bacteria roadblocks’ throughout the production and distribution system, such as hide cleaners, carcass washes and steam pasteurization cabinets, ensuring proper refrigeration during distribution and maintaining careful separation of raw and cooked foods and proper cooking of ground beef in restaurants and home kitchens, there is a far better chance of product safety than additional testing for invisible pathogens will provide," he said.

Mr. Boyle also stressed there are limits to the effectiveness of testing.

"The test result is only a sample," he said. "A measured sample of the ground beef ingredients is pulled from a container of beef and sent to a lab and tested. The testing process destroys the sample.

"When the results come back, the test results document will sometimes say something such as ‘These results apply only to the sample that was tested.’ Sampling other portions of the container may yield a different result."

He added that the product in the grocery store has been sampled, not tested. Although U.S.D.A. and the industry take thousands of ground-beef samples and test them for E. coli, there is no tested product in the marketplace because the product is destroyed during the testing process.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 27, 2009, starting on Page 22. Click here to search that archive.

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