In so many ways, January 20, 2009 ushered in a new era in American politics (my wife and kids stood in the cold and were seated just below the President). A charismatic leader with an agenda of hope and change took the reins in a time of great trouble on many fronts in this country. Many hoped for change in how things were run in Washington, and by extension, in government agencies. Those of us in food safety hoped those changes would begin to reverse the upward trend of contaminated meat production, recalls, and related illnesses and deaths.
Although no one can argue that President Obama has not had a lot on his plate (to put it mildly), however, American dinner plates have not yet been the beneficiaries of an agenda of change. First, the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety at FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency responsible for ensuring the safety of our meat supply) went unfilled for more than a year. There is now a nominee, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, who, if confirmed, will be faced with a staggering number of meat recalls since the new administration came to Washington.
Meat is recalled for many reasons, but let’s take a look at only Antibiotic-resistant Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 recalls, both of which carry a Class I rating – meaning that consuming it could cause “serious adverse health consequences, or death” (quoting USDA there, parent agency of the FSIS). Things were quiet for the first few months of the President’s term – until May 4, 2009 – when Alex and George Wholesale started things off with a recall of 4,663 pounds of E. coli contaminated meat. Bob’s Food City followed with 375 pounds (E. coli), and then Valley Meats recalled 95,898 pounds (E. coli). That was just May.
Recalls by SP provisions, Snow Creek Meat Processing, International Meat Company, JBS Swift Beef Company, E.S. Miller Packing Company, King Soopers, Inc., Beef Packers, Inc., Sterling Pacific Meat Company, Marcacci Meats, San Diego Meat Company, South Shore Meats, Fairbank Farms, Fairbury Steaks, Beef Packers Inc (again) Harrington and Sons, and National Steak and Poultry rounded out the year for a grand total of 2,681,548 pounds of tainted meats.
2010 has been anything but quiet, with 7,176,563 pounds of recalls to date from Adams Farm, Huntington Meat Packing, Daniele International, West Missouri Beef Company, and Huntington Meat Packing again—the second time as a result of a criminal investigation.
If you have your calculator handy, you’ll already know that almost ten million pounds of potentially deadly meat has been recalled since President Obama took office (see attached spreadsheet).
Dr. Hagen, you have a difficult road ahead, but I’ll be on that road with you, hoping – and working – for change. By the way Dr. Hagen, here is my suggested To Do List for you – "IF (now when) there was an USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety this is what they should be doing."