Several months ago during the height of the Spinach and Lettuce E. coli outbreaks I posted – I agree with the American Meat Institute?  My point was that I believed that the AMI and the beef industry had in fact turned a significant corner in food safety. In fact I wrote:

J. Patrick Boyle, President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute, wrote in part in the New York Times regarding, “100 Years Later, the Food Industry Is Still ‘The Jungle,’ ” by Adam Cohen (Editorial Observer, Jan. 2), “Since 1999, the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 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.” I agree with Mr. Boyle. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat have declined by 42 percent.

Well, after seven E. coli outbreaks and recalls, leaving over 40 sickened across the United States, I am wondering if I had spoken too soon? I spent a bit of time yesterday talking with reporters on the significance of the recall of several million pounds of red meat. Coverage and a few quotes below:

Debate grows in beef recalls – Critics dispute claim that string of alerts shows system works.
Darrell Smith – Sacramento Bee

A “creeping recall” of ground beef and a spate of other recalls have alarmed food safety advocates who fear a breakdown in the food monitoring system, but health regulators say the alerts signal the system is working.

Over the weekend, after Arizona health officials found E. coli in a ground beef sample there, a Los Angeles area food processor vastly expanded its recall to 5.7 million pounds of more than 100 fresh and frozen meat products.

While this recall is by far the largest in recent months, it is not the only such announcement. From Arizona to Wisconsin, Alabama to Washington and here in California, more than 6 million pounds of ground beef and related beef products have been recalled from stores and distribution sites in 25 states since April.

“This is like déjà vu for me, this creeping recall,” said William Marler, an attorney who’s won massive settlements in E. coli-related cases. “What worries me about the recalls is that it’s back to where it used to be — after people got sick. It’s the canary in the coal mine, like in the 1990s.”

Marler sees a troubling pattern: “If it’s just one recall or outbreak, that’s going to happen. But something else is going on. I thought that the meat industry had figured this out, (but) the signs are not positive.”

In 1993, Marler represented 10-year-old Brianne Kiner in a $15.6 million settlement with fast-food chain Jack in the Box and settled several other cases related to the E. coli outbreak for more than $2.5 million each. Contaminated burgers sickened 144 people who ate at the chain.

Five years later, Marler won a $12 million settlement for families of five children who were severely sickened after drinking Odwalla apple juice tainted with E. coli. He has also been the lead counsel in similar cases against ConAgra, Sizzler and Dole.

Better science, ’02 case led to faster action in meat recall
David Migoya – Denver Post Staff Writer

The current recall by United Food Group in Vernon, Calif., was expanded Saturday to include 5.7 million pounds of ground beef.

Fourteen people in seven states – two in Colorado – have been made ill by the meat, authorities say.

It is the largest recall of its kind since ConAgra Beef Co., recalled 18.6 million pounds from its Greeley plant in July 2002.

Despite the improvements in the science, critics say the nation’s food-safety system is still riddled with problems.

“It’s the same flawed recall system, where consumers can’t find out whether the meat in their freezer is poisoned,” said Bill Marler, a food-safety attorney in Seattle.

Federal law makes the information a trade secret.