Earlier this year J. Patrick Boyle, President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute, wrote in part in the New York Times: “Since 1999, the incidence of E. coli in ground beef samples tested by the Agriculture Department has declined by 80 percent to a fraction of a percent, a level once thought impossible.” At the time I agreed with Mr. Boyle. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat declined by 42 percent. But something has changed, and it has not changed for the better.
Here are the facts. A decade ago most of my clients were sickened by E. coli-tainted meat. In fact, between 1993 and 2002 I recovered over $250 Million from the meat industry and restaurants in verdicts and settlements on behalf of those clients, mostly children with kidney failure caused from consuming E. coli-tainted hamburger. And, then it stopped. From 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 and through the spring of 2007 there were few recalls or illnesses tied to hamburger. I did not sue the meat industry often and I touted it, as a model of what an industry could do that was right to protect consumers.
But then it changed this spring. Since April of this year, nearly 30,000,000 pounds of red meat, mostly hamburger, has been recalled. E. coli illnesses once on a downturn have spiked. Kids are getting sick; seriously sick again. For example, at 2:00 this morning, Topps Meat Company expanded its 300,000-pound recall to include 21,700,000 pounds of ground beef; as of this morning 25 people are sickened in eight states. This recall tops the Con Agra recall of 19,000,000 pounds in 2002 that sickened over forty and killed one and is just under the 25,000,000 pounds recalled by now-bankrupt Hudson Foods in 1997. And, this is not the first time Topps was caught selling E. coli contaminated meat.
Other outbreaks and recalls in the last few months include: (1) six people in Washington, two people in Oregon and one in Idaho who became sick from E. coli-tainted organic beef ground by Interstate Meat. 42,000 pounds of meat was recalled. (2) Thirteen people have been confirmed ill with E. coli infections after eating ground beef produced by United Food Group sold in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Montana. Over 5,700,000 pound of meat have been recalled. (3) Tyson Fresh Meats recalled 40,440 pounds of ground beef products due to possible contamination with E. coli. (4) Seven Minnesotans were confirmed as part of the E. coli outbreak that prompted PM Beef Holdings to recall 117,500 pounds of beef trim products that was ground and sold at Lunds and Byerly’s stores. (5) Twenty-seven people have been confirmed ill with E. coli infections in Fresno County. The Fresno County Department of Community Health inspected the “Meat Market” in Northwest Fresno, the source of the outbreak. (6) At least two people were confirmed ill with E. coli infections in Michigan after eating ground beef produced by Davis Creek Meats and Seafood of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The E. coli outbreak prompted Davis Creek Meats and Seafood to recall approximately 129,000 pounds of beef products that were distributed in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. (7) Three Napa Valley children became sick from hamburger patties sold at a St. Helena Little League snack shack. 100,000 pounds of hamburger (that was a year old) was recalled. And, (8) Several people were confirmed ill with E. coli infections in Pennsylvania after eating E. coli-contaminated meat products at Hoss’s Family Steak and Sea Restaurants, a Pennsylvania-based restaurant chain that purchased its meat from HFX, Inc., of South Claysburg, Pennsylvania. As a result of the outbreak, HFX recalled approximately 4,900 pounds of meat products.
One would think that with hundreds of Americans poisoned that Congress would ask one simple question – “What is going on?” Congress needs to act now. It is time for Congress to accept a leadership role and call hearings, not only to explore the reasons for the past months’ outbreaks, but also to help prevent the next one. Congress must reach out to all facets of the meat industry, from “farm to fork,” to consumers who bear the burden of illnesses, and to academics and regulators to find reasonable, workable solutions to prevent meat-related illnesses. More regulation may not help. Testing all products may not be feasible. More funding for enforcement for the CDC and USDA may not work. And, more funding for university research may also not be the answer. However, getting all to the same table is a start. Congress needs to do the inviting.