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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Richard Raymond, former USDA Undersecretary of FSIS, Unplugged, but Right On

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.

  • John Munsell

    In the summer of 2008, Excel Meat Co (part of Cargill Meat Solutions with 35,000 employees, 26 plants, and annual sales of $ 15 billion) lost a law suit in which it was forced to pay two multi-million dollar settlements, stemming from the death of a 6-year old girl sickened by E.coli emanating from intact muscle meat which cross contaminated watermelon, which the victim ate. Neither USDA nor the meat industry is paying any attention to these settlements, and go on their merry way allowing intact beef cuts to be legally shipped into commerce although they are surface contaminated with E.coli. And, to be shipped in containers proudly bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection which says “USDA Inspected and Passed”. Since USDA is unwilling to change their policies, the agency is officially endorsing the sale of USDA Inspected and Passed E.coli pathogens and who cares? In a luncheon speech in Chicago last September 17, Dr. Raymond in his last public speech before departing the agency, stated that USDA had tested 24 pieces of intact muscle cuts, and that 8 tested positive for E.coli, and 6 of the 8 were loin cuts. Realizing this, we can readily discern why both the agency and the big slaughter plants fiercely oppose testing of intact muscle cuts. They both know full well that large-scale testing of intact cuts would immediately reveal that the big packing houses have ongoing sanitation problems which are not being remedied. But just as important, such expeditious revelations would also expose the inherent foundational problems which permeate the HACCP Hoax, a political science-based interloper which the agency and the big packers claim to be the cat’s meow for public health. Testing intact cuts would let the cat out of the bag, revealing that HACCP imperils public health as long as the SOURCE of contamination continues to be insulated from accountability, since USDA sends all accountability downstream with previously-contaminated product, placing all liability on the innocent and unwitting downline further processors who cannot visually detect invisible E.coli. The statement above which states that if 4 out of 91 tests of beef trim are positive for E.coli, that all of the beef could be dangerous is rife with implications. The agency is thus stating that if only 3 out of 91 samples (3.3%) are positive, that the rest of the beef is NOT dangerous. Dr. Engeljohn has established a precedent here, in that the agency allows slaughter plants to operate as is, without corrective actions, as long as microbial tests turn up 3.3 % or less positives. So, 3.3 % positives is now acceptable, and everyone goes home happy, no enforcement actions against the now-compliant (3.3 %) packers, and the agency is relieved of the discomfort which would undoubtedly occur if it bravely suggested to a big packer that sanitation problems (a) exist, and (b) must be remedied. When HACCP was initially rolled out in 1998, FSIS proudly announced that the agency had a “Zero Tolerance” for E.coli 0157:H7. Now, absent any public fanfare, FSIS meekly states that a 3.3 % positive ratio is ok, and does not constitute a high event day. To his credit, Dr. Raymond unilaterally (I always felt he was a Lone Ranger at the agency) attempted to change faulty policies to promote public health. Naw, there is no room for heretics like him at USDA, which places a much higher focus on mitigating potential litigation with the big packers than it places on safe food. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this power play is that the big packers ship intact cuts to downstream customers, and place this warning on the invoice: “Not Intended for Grinding”. Are we idiots? We all know that trim off these intact cuts are ground up! Always has been, always will. E.coli are not INTRODUCED into this trim via further processing of the intact cuts. E.coli arrived at the further processing plant as a surface contaminant on the intact cuts. Garbage in, garbage out. Likewise, E.coli is not INTRODUCED via the grinding process, for the same reason. Face it folks, our Senators, Representatives, and White House lack the fortitude to Force the Source to clean up its act. They also lack the courage to force FSIS to jettison HACCP and go back to a “Hands On” role on meat production lines. HACCP is much more than a driver of domestic meat production. HACCP has morphed into a global behemoth, because HACCP has become the global prerequisite necessary for international trade. In a nutshell, HACCP is a dumbed-down profoundly political-science derivative driving a deregulated global food supply. If our elected officials conjure up enough courage to deep six HACCP, all countries involved in international trade would be forced to make the same improvements. This would adversely impact the bottom lines of multi-national conglomerates, who will dedicate tens of millions lobbying in WDC to prevent my ideas from serious consideration. This is a melluvahess, with no easy solution. Sounds like WWII, but once this nation was galvanized in a common goal, we were victorious in WWII. Anyone who endorses the twin towers of safe food and public health must galvanize behind the belief that public health trumps multi-national corporate profits. John Munsell

  • Senator Paul Muegge

    Why have the giants in agribusiness been allowed to make the rules? It is just not the power politics they play but the open ended inffluence that they have throughout the meat industry. USDA and the Land Grant Institutions are filled with confederates of the meat packing interest. We also must recognize that NCBA and other farm groups are far to willing to spout the corporate speak. This is not limited to meat industry. We see it in every phase of production agriculture. Why are we not having discussions concerning the issues? We would not want to disparage the farmers and ranchers. Yes, more corporate speak. Industrial agriculture has devised the integrated business model that has successfully taken good old fashion competition out the the market place. Yes, there is much more to this than the concerns of food safety and we need to talk about it.