I was pleasantly surprised to read today that the USDA has apparently decided to take notice of the elephant in the room when it comes to the tons of ground beef that consumer purchase every day. That is, grocery stores and other retail establishments routinely add trimmings—the bits of meat leftover from cutting steaks and roasts—to the ground beef they grind each day and put out for sale. And as we have discovered in case after case involving this kind of ground beef, very often the store has no records that would allow the source of the contamination to be traced back to any particular meat processor.

As the recent outbreaks involving retailers like Kroger and Whole Foods have made clear, contaminated trimmings are a real danger to the public health. And what is worse, if grocery stores are not keeping the necessary records, then the true scope of the E. coli O157:H7 problem is not really known. While the USDA requires that trimmings be tested for E. coli O157:H7 if they are going to another meat plant to be ground, there is no such requirement for meat that goes to grocery stores, restaurants, and other retail outlets. So huge numbers of people every day are eating ground beef made that has been made with untested, potentially contaminated meat.

This is why it is a great first step for USDA to develop (as reported at Meatingplace.com, and reprinted here: http://shopsmartkentucky.org/index.cfm?zone=/unionactive/view_article.cfm&homeID=121817) to develop guidance for retailers. But this should not be the only steps taken. Instead of guidance, proper recordkeeping should be required of all retailed. Even better, it is time for the USDA to abolish the indefensible distinction it makes in its E. coli policy, which suggests that this deadly pathogen is an adulterant in trimmings and ground beef, but not on so-called “intact” cuts of meat—the very cuts from which grocery stores generate the trimmings to make ground beef. It is time that the USDA has a truly zero-tolerance policy for E. coli O157:H7. And to enforce such a policy, the USDA has to once more get serious about a rigorous sampling and testing program at retail. Let’s stop using the American public as test subjects where illness and death are the truest signs that the meat supply is not safe.