by Marion Nestle
Nov 17 2009

Want safe meat? Make USDA do its job!

The New York Times reports that the company selling contaminated ground beef responsible for killing two people and making 500 others sick, “stopped testing its ingredients years ago under pressure from beef suppliers.”

Recall that since 1994, the USDA bans E. coli 0157:H7 in ground meat.  It encourages, but does not require, meat companies to test for the pathogen. Why don’t they test?  Because they don’t have to.

If they did test, they might find toxic E. coli and have to cook or destroy the meat.  As the Times reported in depth last month, Testing puts meat companies in “a regulatory situation.”  As one food safety officer put it, slaughterhouses do not want his packing company to test for pathogens: “one, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”

Instead of requiring safety testing, the USDA uses a “restrained approach.”  As Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, told the Times, USDA has the power to require testing but doesn’t use it because it has to take the companies’ needs into consideration: “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”

The moral?  Meat companies will only produce meat safely if forced to.  As we saw yesterday, oyster companies will only produce safe oysters if they have to.  That’s why we need a food safety system in which all foods have to be produced safely.  What will it take to get Congress to act?

  • dogear6

    It’s too bad the media will not be more screaming about this. I don’t much care about the the latest happenings of today’s celebrities! This is much more relevant to my life.

    I believe you have the links to write my senators and representative; I will have to do so later tonight.

  • If you want safe meat, another option is to stop buying it from the grocery story and seek out a local farmer who raises his cattle on pasture. Animals are so much healthier when they are raised this way and you know the meat is fresh. Tastes better, too.

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  • this is never ending ! once again money trumps health. what a screwed up country this is. dogear6, u r rite, the media should b screamin about this & we should b outraged ! instead they report drivel & most r comfortable,content & just eat it up. the 60’s r lookin better & better every day-when people took 2 the streets in protest,only then does govt listen & put pressure on big business.

  • K.

    As Melissa notes, it seems like the only genuinely safe route is to make friends with your local farmers, find a local butcher, and so forth. For people who simply don’t have that option, hopefully they at least look into grinding their own meat, which also eliminates a lot of the health hazard.

    What’s it going to take for Congress to act? A block of the cattle industry having anything to do with getting them elected in the first place, along with a lifting of food defamation laws.

  • Anthro

    So much could be accomplished with campaign finance reform, but as we have already put the fox out to mind the chickens, I can’t see the fox offering to change his good fortune.

    I agree with above post that the people will need to take to the streets (not with tea bags and an ideological motive, but with genuine outrage at the corporate takeover of congress) to effect change. A lot of us hoped voting for Obama would be enough, but he really cannot do it alone and without systemic change, his hands are often tied.

    Food safety should be a non-partisan no brainer, but obviously, we are so far gone in the corporate ownership of congress, that we actually get statements like that in Marion’s post (the official is “responsible for the entire industry”).

    Isn’t is odd that when everyday people are laid off, the corporate big shots say we must “adapt” and “retrain”, but when they feel threatened by regulation, then they sing a very different tune and the government is supposed to make sure their profits continue at the same level they have achieved by laying off masses of people?

  • Anthro

    Oh yes, I forgot. I don’t even eat meat, but this still makes me angry, politically. Anyway, it isn’t just meat–it’s anything and everything that they even imagine might dent their profit margin.

  • mosprott

    This is *why* I don’t eat meat – at least not meat from supermarkets. This policy – that the government’s role here is more to “help” the cattle industry than to safeguard our foodchain – is so completely ass-backward it’s mind-boggling. When will the health and safety of the population take precedence over profits?

  • L.C.

    How to get Congress to act? The “large producer” that won’t test, basically with sanction from the USDA, should be made the exclusive supplier to the congressional cafeterias and restaurants.

    Some post-lunch, projectile vomiting in the middle of a food safety hearing should generate enough interest for real change to be implemented. In this case, voted on before dinner.

    Seriously, though, we need a centralized food safety system separated from the promotion of the food industry. USDA’s conflicts of interest can’t be fixed. Time for the United States Department of Food Safety.

  • The most recent beef recall was all over the news, not sure if all of you are familiar:

    This article is very informative and the topic creeps under my skin. I gave up red meat a little over a year ago and have never looked back. Industrial plants are disgusting and it amazes me how instances of E.Coli keep on the rise. To quote: ‘The beef industry has contributed to more American deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters and all automobile accidents combined. If beef is your idea of ‘real food for real people’ you’d better live real close to a real good hospital.’ (Neal D Barnard, MD, President, Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine.)

  • Dr. Saul

    Personally, I’m MUCH more concerned about leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes, bean sprouts, and berries which all result in a much larger number of both outbreaks and cases of food poisonings annually than beef (CDC 2009), and all of those items are meant to be eaten raw.

    The question for me is if Congress does enact a universal food safety act, who exactly pays for the additional costs of these inspections? The food industry? If so, the price will almost certainly be passed on to consumers. Given that 1 in 7 of all Americans are now categorized as food insecure (USDA 2009), I think we must be very cautious about any plans that will pass the cost of additional inspections on to the consumer. On a related note we also have to ask how these new restrictions will affect small scale farmers. Will small-scale farmers be able to afford the initial costs associated with any inspection required? Will they be exempt from inspection all together? I would assume not as it’s a myth that small-scale farms do not have contamination issues and that this is exclusively a “corporate problem.” And finally, at what exact point in the food manufacturing process do we perform the testing? For meat, for example, contamination can occur at multiple points in the process. Beef that passes a pathogenicity test at the slaughterhouse could potentially become infected during the grinding or packaging process.

  • Bobby

    What will it take to get Congress to act?

    Money. Lots and lots of money.

    Which explains why and how they presently act, and for whom they act for.

    Hint: it ain’t for the citizens who vote for them!

  • penkapp

    Lobbying to politicians must be outlawed. This kind of thing will continue until companies are no longer allowed to shove money into the pockets of our “representatives.”