Check Your Burgers: E. Coli Season's Coming

"Four tests per month at the largest plants is still not enough when these plants may be making upwards of 1 million pounds of ground beef per day," said Felicia Nestor of Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit organization that advocates smaller-scale agriculture. "They can choose the small portion of that which will be tested. These plants make more ground beef in one day than many of the smallest grinders make in 10 years."

Bill Marler, an attorney who has become an advocate for food safety reform since he represented victims of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993, called the testing regimen a poorly designed "exercise in hunting for a needle in a very large haystack."

"As the FSIS has been operated to date," Marler wrote on his blog, "the agency and the meat industry share an equal interest in not finding E. coli O157:H7 in plants because it proves both entities to be failures. So the politics of testing is all about creating PR for the appearance of more stringent testing that is in fact not more stringent at all. Increased frequency does not, by itself, mean increased stringency."

In response to that assessment of his agency, Engeljohn said, "I would disagree with that."

He said the USDA "cares very much" and, in addition to increasing testing and focusing more on the highest-risk plants, has now stepped up its inspection of "trim" -- what the beef is called before it is ground into hamburger meat.

Food and Water Watch's Nestor acknowledged the testing of trim is a positive change that "may allow the government to identify and remove more dangerous ground beef from the market than it does today."

But Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and author of several books about food safety, said this new testing standard -- any testing standard -- "only works if the plant owners are serious about finding things."

She cited Earthbound Farms, a vegetable grower that overhauled its testing after an E. coli outbreak that killed three people and sickened 200 was traced to its produce.

"Earthbound Farms, for example, hired a really good microbial consultant to develop sampling procedures that would catch most problems," Nestle said, noting that catching all of them is impossible. "They have a defined set-in-advance procedure for sampling, testing and holding and they do this when the greens come in and again before they leave."

Some in the beef industry, she says, are reluctant to submit to that degree of scrutiny.

"Hamburger, which has a much higher probability of contamination, needs even more than this, and that means testing and holding every lot until it comes back negative. Of course, they don't want to do this."

Engeljohn agreed there is resistance on the part of some processors to hold beef off the market during the two to three days it can take for test results.

"There are many who would say that this is such a highly perishable product," Engeljohn said. "But the risk of what happens if you release that product and it turns out to be positive causes there to be some significant consequences to that. So we the agency would not agree with anybody who would say it's not practical or feasible."

The USDA does not require manufacturers to hold the beef until tests come back. But the agency did warn after the 2007 outbreak that if the industry didn't voluntarily change, the agency would issue new rules forcing its hand, Engeljohn said.

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