We as Americans have grown up being told that our food supply is the safest in the world. However, the CDC estimates that each year over 76 million of us become ill, 300,000 are hospitalized and over 5,000 die, just from eating food contaminated with a food borne pathogen.
In recent years, E. coli outbreaks have been linked to not just ground beef, but also to sprouts, lettuce, apple juice and steaks. Salmonella outbreaks have been traced to foods such as tomatoes, orange juice and cantaloupe. In the last months the largest Hepatitis-A outbreak in United States history has been linked to green onions. Last year, school children in a Chicago suburb were fed chicken fingers contaminated with ammonia. And now, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or “Mad Cow” disease has been discovered at a slaughterhouse in Washington State.
While the incubation period for most food borne pathogens is a matter of days, and human symptoms of hepatitis-A infection frequently do not show up for over a month, symptoms of “Mad Cow,” or the human variant known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, may not appear for decades. Because we should not have to worry about the meat we eat today, and the impact that it could have on us days or decades from now, we need stronger and more aggressive regulation and enforcement by the Government, specifically the USDA. This arm of the government must do everything it can to protect the consuming public from tainted product and to protect the US meat industry from economic suicide.
Our tables, and the entire food industry, can be protected by five available and simple decisions that will help promote food safety – one, track animals from the farm to your fork; two, test for food borne pathogens; three, reconsider the use of “downer cattle;” four, give the USDA absolute authority to recall meat that may pose a risk to the public health; and, five, stop feeding animals (especially those at risk of harboring disease) to other animals.
We must require the meat industry to document where cows come from and where specific lots of meat are sold. That way, meat can be recalled quickly if a pathogen is detected anywhere in the process. Timely online records would allow meat to be efficiently tracked and recalled as soon as inspectors get a positive test result. We have the technology; we simply need to use it. The fact that the beef industry and the government did not know where the BSE-contaminated cow came from, or where its meat went, is beyond belief. If we can track online a book from Amazon.com, we should be able to do the same with a cow.
While European countries have resorted to testing massive numbers of cows to both establish the prevalence of BSE and to eradicate the disease, the USDA has limited testing to less than 20,000 animals out of a US herd of millions. We have the ability to cheaply and scientifically test meat for a whole host of contaminates before meat hits our plate. Europe requires testing for “Mad Cow” for nearly every cow slaughtered. Many of the largest US retail purchasers of meat products now require pathogen testing (for such pathogens as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella) before the meat reaches restaurants or grocery stores. We have the ability to test food before we eat it. Testing for all pathogens should happen at every stage of production – from “farm to fork.”
We know that the Washington State cow that has caused the entire US cattle market to collapse was what the industry calls a “downer” – a cow so sick that it can not walk to its own slaughter. It is estimated that over 200,000 such “downers” are used each year. If a cow is so ill that it needs to be dragged into the slaughter house, should it really be used in meat that might make it onto your child’s plate? Congress considered banning the use of “downers” last year; perhaps reconsideration is in order.
Also, the USDA must be granted authority to recall any meat product it deems to be unfit for human consumption. Presently, the USDA can only “request” that the industry recall meat – meat that has most likely been consumed or is in someone’s freezer. In today’s risk-filled world, we need an agency with the goal and the power to protect the public.
Finally, in 1997 the FDA banned the use of cow brain and spinal tissue in cattle feed. But in 2002, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report, several firms were violating the restriction, and the GAO concluded that the ban was not adequate to control the spread of BSE. One would think that with all the knowledge the government and cattle industry have about BSE, they would realize that tough enforcement is in order on the feeding of animal parts to other animals that are eventually consumed by humans. This should be a (pun-intended) “no brainer.”
We have the ability to live up to the billing of having the safest food supply in the world. The question is whether this “Mad Cow” crisis will be the catalyst that finally starts the reform necessary to stop making US consumers ill and to regain the confidence of the World in our food supply.