Learning From the Past

So how can we ensure that the gains in food safety already made are preserved and the new problems addressed? Based on my many years of experience with the issues, here are some recommendations:

It took a nationwide crisis, and the horrible deaths of several young children, for the US to begin addressing the issue of E. coli contamination in meat. That crisis occurred in the early 1990s, when undercooked hamburgers containing the deadly strain of bacteria E. coli O157:H7 sold by a U.S. fast-food restaurant chain, Jack in the Box, sickened 650 people and four children died.

After the Jack in the Box tragedy, the head of the USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service, Michael Taylor, took a regulatory and systems approach to food safety. Taylor declared that E. coli-contaminated raw ground beef would be classified and treated as “adulterated” within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Taylor also introduced a mandatory Risk Management System that required meat processors to adopt comprehensive precautions that included carcass washes, citric acid sprays, steam pasteurization, and air-exchange systems.

This appears to have worked. Incidents of E. coli poisoning involving ground beef have declined. And there is a lesson here for the broader food industry.