William D. Marler

Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the USDA/FSIS told us last week: “our meat supply is the safest in the world.” This when in the past days Topps, a company in operation for nearly 70 years closes its doors and recalls 21 million pounds of ground meat after sickening 30, and Cargil, one of the largest food producers in the US, recalls hamburger after sickening 4 children in Minnesota. ”The US beef supply is safe?” Well, I suppose the thought is that if the lie is big enough we will not notice?

Earlier this year J. Patrick Boyle, President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute, wrote in part in the New York Times: “Since 1999, the incidence of E. coli in ground beef samples tested by the Agriculture Department has declined by 80 percent to a fraction of a percent, a level once thought impossible.” In January 2007 I agreed with Mr. Boyle. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat declined by some 42 percent over the last five years. Perhaps our beef was safer in January but something has changed, and it has not changed for the better.

A decade ago most of my clients were sickened by E. coli-tainted meat. In fact, between 1993 and 2002 I represented hundreds of children with acute kidney failure caused by consuming E. coli-tainted ground beef. And, then it nearly stopped. For the last five years there were few recalls or illnesses tied to ground beef. I touted the meat industry as a model of what an industry could do that was right to protect consumers.

But then it changed this spring. Since April of this year, 30 million pounds of red meat, mostly ground beef products, has been recalled. To put that in perspective, that is enough red meat to make 120 million hamburgers. E. coli illnesses once on a downturn have spiked. Kids are getting sick, seriously sick, again – nearly 100 since April. Topps Meat Company expanded its 300,00-pound recall to include 21 million pounds of ground beef. This recall tops the Con Agra recall of 19 million pounds in 2002 that sickened over forty and killed one and is just under the 25 million pounds recalled by now-bankrupt Hudson Foods in 1997.

We also learned in the past few days that Dr. Raymond’s food safety bureaucracy knew weeks in advance that our meat supply might be tainted by Topps meat and did not alert the public until dozens of children had already become ill. And he tells us: ”the US beef supply is safe?”

One would think that with hundreds of Americans poisoned that Dr. Raymond would not be acting as the “cheerleader in chief” for the beef industry, but would be asking one simple question – “What is going on?” Clearly, the USDA/FSIS seems incapable of asking simple questions.

Congress needs to act now. It is time for Congress to accept a leadership role and call hearings on “How safe is our meat supply, really?” Hearings need to not only explore the reasons for the past months’ outbreaks, but also to help prevent the next one. Congress must reach out to all facets of the meat industry, from “farm to fork,” to consumers who bear the burden of illnesses, and to academics and regulators to find reasonable, workable solutions to prevent the next meat-related illnesses. More regulation may not help. Testing all products may not be feasible. More funding for the CDC and USDA may not be enough. And, more research at universities may not find all of the answers. But, getting everyone concerned to the same table is a start.

Several times a month Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer, through his non-profit, Outbreak Inc., speaks to industry and government on why it is important to prevent foodborne illnesses. He is also a frequent commentator on food litigation and food safety on www.marlerblog.com.

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  • Walt Hill

    As Boyle said, the fact that the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in samples of raw ground beef tested by FSIS has declined 80% since 1999 is a good thing–it is only part of the story. The majority (if not all) of the large producers carry out a considerable amount of testing but according to FSIS policy and FSIS’s interpretation of HACCP, FSIS does not test a lot until it has passed the company’s pre-shipment review. So, if a lot the company has tested is positive, FSIS never gets to test it. FSIS tests primarily only lots that the company has found negative.
    This brings up a lot of issues regarding the efficiency and efficacy of testing. Without getting into a lot of statistics, the FSIS incidence of positives is around 0.2%. If so, they would have to test about 1,500 samples per lot of ground beef to be 95% sure it is not contaminated. And this assumes that the E. coli O157:H7 cells are randomly distributed throughout the product which is not true.
    Therefore, a negative test means virtually nothing. The amount of raw ground beef testing that FSIS does really doesn’t do much to assure the product is safe but what it DOES do, is coerce the producers into do a lot of testing themselves and to try to produce a safe product within the limitations of their corporate goals and business plan and commitment to quality and safety assurance.
    So to comment on Raymond’s remark–the US food supply is one of the safest in world unless you or someone you know gets sick.

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