by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat safety

Dec 3 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): USDA

USDA is the agency supposedly responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.  Unlike FDA, which is responsible for the safety of just about all other foods, USDA gets to impose HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) on meat and poultry.  It just doesn’t bother to enforce its own rules.  Hence recent events:

Consumer Reports, which for decades has been testing supermarket chickens for microbial contaminants, has just  tested chickens again. Sigh. Two-thirds were contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter. You will be relieved to know that this is an improvement. It was 80% the last time Consumer Reports did the testing.

In an effort to get USDA and the poultry industry moving on this problem, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Dem-CA) has introduced a bill to prohibit the sale of meat that has not been certified free of pathogens. Based on what’s been happening with meat safety, I’m betting it won’t get far.

So let’s talk about meat safety.  For this, we should all be reading USA Today, which seems to be one of the last newspapers in America still funding investigative reporting.  Its latest blockbuster is an account of the 826,000-pound recall by Beef Packers, Inc. (a subsidiary of Cargill) a few months ago. The meat made at least 28 people ill as a result of infections with a strain of Salmonella Newport highly resistant to antibiotics.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.  Beef Packers is a major supplier of meat to the USDA’s school lunch program. But oops.  The recall covered meat sent to retailers.  It did not cover meat sent to schools. According to the intrepid reporters at USA Today, USDA bought 450,000 pounds of ground beef produced by Beef Packers during the dates covered by the recall.

USDA should have known better.  Beef Packers had a history of positive Salmonella tests but the USDA did not disclose that information. An official told USA Today that doing so

would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to American school children.

You can’t make these things up.  USA Today provides the documents on its site to prove it.

I missed the earlier article in the USA Today series about school lunches in general and Del Rey Tortillas in particular, a company implicated in 20 cases of school food poisonings since 2003. Check out the article’s quick facts-and-figures about school lunches, the nifty interactive timeline for the Del Rey episodes, and the raft of documents in this case.

Good work, reporters. If you want to know why we need newspapers, here’s a good reason.

As for USDA: the new administration at the agency shows many signs of wanting to do the right thing about food safety but they have to deal with entrenched staff and inspectors who have been cozy with industry far too long.  USDA: deal with it!

Coming soon: updates on FDA and FTC.

Mar 14 2009

Obama on food safety!

President Obama had quite a lot to say about food safety this morning and I’m happy to say that it sounds like he gets it: the present system is outdated (it was developed a century ago), too spread out, under-resourced, and hazardous to health.  He’s going to appoint a committee to make recommendations and promises that all will be fixed “under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg.”  I hope she knows what she’s gotten herself into.

In the meantime, here’s his radio address and lawyer Bill Marler’s take on it.  And thanks Bill for posting the entire text of the speech.

And while I’m at it, how about the USDA’s new plan to test the meat at hamburger packing plants four times a month?  Is this an improvement or a clear effort to make sure nobody ever finds anything wrong?  Here’s Brian Hartman’s discussion of that question at ABC News.

Mar 28 2008

Oh no! Now see what the USDA is doing

So now the USDA is proposing to forget about its promise to identify retailers selling recalled meat – unless the health risk is really, really bad. Oh great. The agency now thinks it’s just fine if consumers don’t realize that the meat they bought from local stores was later recalled.  It’s up to you to track all those lot numbers and know what you bought and where you bought it.   Rumors are that USDA is reneging on its promise to keep consumers better informed under pressure from the food industry.  Let’s keep an eye on this one.

Mar 9 2008

The meat recall saga continues

This week’s events:  The USDA won’t tell Congress the names of the stores or companies that received their share of the 143 million pounds of recalled meat; one of the packing plant’s employees, who makes $9 per hour, has been indicted for animal cruelty; and the role of the Humane Society in all of this is now called into question.  Stay tuned.

Mar 6 2008

Food chains: the 143 million pound recall

OK. So we know much of the recalled hamburger meat was eaten by school children but where did the rest of it go? Into packaged meals, apparently. The Wall Street Journal has a nifty account of how this meat ended up in packaged Boston Market lasagna (Heinz), Progresso soup (General Mills), and Hot Pockets sandwiches (Nestlé–no relation) .  These companies have recalled 35,000 to 49,000 cases of products, each.  Yum.

Feb 22 2008

More on the meat recall

If you are having trouble understanding what the huge meat recall is about, catch this well linked piece by Elissa Altman on the Huffington Post.

Feb 22 2008

American Meat Institute’s comments on recall

The recall of 143 million pounds of hamburger is a big blow to the image of the meat industry, and its lobbying groups are hard at work. Calling calls for more regulation “simply outrageous,” the Institute argues that what was caught on the Human Society’s notorious videotape is not typical: We will not let a video from what appears to have been a tragic anomaly stand as the poster child for our industry.

And if you were wondering what happened to the recalled meat, the USDA gives an accounting: 50.3 million lbs were distributed as part of the national school lunch program; of that, 19.6 million were consumed; 15.2 million are identified and on hold; and 15.5
million still being traced.   But what about the remaining 93 million?  All eaten?

Feb 18 2008

The biggest ground beef recall ever

The USDA is announcing the largest recall of ground beef in U.S. history: 143 million pounds, most of it already sold and, presumably, eaten.  The meat was produced at the  Westland/Hallmark Meat company in Chino, California. The recall follows a shocking video of an investigation by the Humane Society at that plant.  The video, which is not easy to watch, shows “downer” cows being slaughtered for food as well as other violations of regulations for meat slaughter. The USDA is taking this very seriously, if too late to keep the meat out of the food supply. It has posted answers to Frequently Asked Questions on its website, along with a transcript of a technical briefing, and links to related statements. And here’s what today’s New York Times has to say about it (as always, the writer, Andrew Martin, provides great quotes).  If you are puzzled about what humane treatment of farm animals might have to do with the safety of the meat we eat, here is as good an explanation as anyone could ask for.