I know, I know, a trial lawyer who reads the Wall Street Journal? Yes, a bit counter-intuitive, but you have to love Bill Tomson’s article today – “U.S. Beef Safety Plan Languishes Amid New Illnesses,” and getting some juicy quotes by an “R” I admire, Richard “Dick” Raymond. Now retired, but until last October, USDA Undersecretary of FSIS – SEND DICK RAYMOND BACK TO WASHINGTON – You know, the one Obama and Vilsack cannot seem to fill despite my resume sitting on their desks! Here is the poop, errr, E. coli:
A June beef recall by JBS Swift & Co. for deadly E.coli contamination could have been prevented if a plan devised during the Bush administration to build new barriers between the bacteria and the public had been enacted.
The proposed safety measures would have had U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors testing more beef, a move the meat industry argued was unnecessary. Inspectors now routinely test ground beef for the E. coli bacteria and any meat that is designated to be turned into ground beef — usually the part of the carcass called "trim," but nothing else.
That’s a mistake and people continue to get sick because of it, former USDA Food Safety Under Secretary Richard Raymond told Dow Jones Newswires in an interview. "We first tested ground beef and now we’re testing trim. We need to start testing whole cuts."
More than a year ago, USDA officials began warning that primal cuts — the large chunks of beef from which whole cuts that produce steaks and roasts come — can be dangerous sources of E. coli contamination. Although steaks are considered safe even if the bacteria is present, portions of the primals they come from are often used to also make ground beef, which has been sickening consumers.
Steaks and the whole cuts they come from aren’t considered dangerous to human health, or "adulterated," even if E. coli bacteria is present because, unlike ground beef, steaks don’t provide bacteria access into the meat below the surface.
But those whole cuts and other primal beef often get turned into ground beef even though that wasn’t the intended purpose of the meat, especially in summer months when grilling weather drives up consumer demand for hamburger meat.
The USDA has been considering for more than a year a policy change that would allow whole beef cuts to be considered "adulterated" — and thus subject to recall — even if they aren’t "intended for use in ground beef," according to Daniel Engeljohn, a deputy assistant administrator for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS.
The policy change is still under consideration, he said.
Also still under consideration is a method devised last year by the USDA for slaughterhouses to detect unacceptable levels of E. coli in the primals they are producing.
In an August 2008 draft "guidance guideline" for slaughterhouses, FSIS suggested that when four out of 91 trim tests show a positive result for E. coli in beef trim — the material primarily used to make ground beef — that should be considered a "high-event day." If that happens, Engeljohn said, all of the beef — not just the trim — could be dangerous.
However, the decision on whether to treat primals as a potential source of E. coli poisoning and whether to allow them into commerce is still up to the producers, Engeljohn said, and that won’t change unless policy is changed.
"That issue didn’t get changed in the prior administration, and so now it comes to this new administration," Engeljohn said.
American Meat Institute Foundation President Jim Hodges said there was no need to divert primals away from the raw market, just because E. coli was found in the carcass trim.
Primals are much more valuable to the producer when they can be sold and turned into raw beef cuts like the steaks sold by retailers. The alternative is to sell the beef to processors that produce only pre-cooked meat products.
Administering antimicrobial treatments to those primals at the slaughterhouse is sufficient to kill the bacteria before they are sold for further processing, he said.
In events leading up to the JBS Swift & Co. June 24 recall, the company’s Greeley, Colo., plant detected E. coli in carcass trim, Chandler Keys, the company’s vice president of government affairs & industry relations told Dow Jones Newswires. Back in April, the trim was diverted for the production of cooked product, as the cooking process kills the bacteria, but the steak- and roast-producing primals were not. They were supposed to have been treated to kill the bacteria, but for reasons that remain unclear, that didn’t happen. Several weeks later, the recall was initiated.
Primals, or parts of them, were recalled in late June by JBS Swift & Co. after at least 18 illnesses were connected to the beef. The company recalled 41,280 pounds of beef, all of which was "intact cuts of beef" that are "typically used for steaks and roasts rather than ground beef."
Even though primals aren’t considered a health threat, or adulterated, even in the event of E. coli contamination, JBS Swift & Co. voluntarily recalled the meat because people were getting sick.
Another separate but related safety gap is a lack of government testing for E. coli in "bench trim," which is the leftover material once steaks and roasts and other cuts are produced from beef primals. That bench trim is often turned into ground beef, but it isn’t the original trim from the slaughterhouse that FSIS and company inspectors focus on for E. coli detection.
Representatives of the U.S. meat packing industry like the AMI have fought the USDA’s FSIS "tooth and nail" since officials there began talking about allowing whole beef cuts to be considered adulterated with E. coli and government testing for bench trim, according to Tony Corbo, the senior lobbyist for the nonprofit consumer organization Food & Water Watch.
The JBS Swift & Co. recall, Corbo said, is an example of why the industry is wrong.