Don't assume the hamburger or hot dog you're eating this Labor Day weekend is free and clear of the possibility of a health-related recall.
Federal meat recalls are not always instantaneous and sometimes can occur weeks or months after meat hits the grill.
That's because although inspectors are required in production plants, bacteria are often invisible and not all meat is scientifically tested for contamination.
"We don't have the resources to test every single batch of meat that is produced in the United States," says Elijah Walker, associate deputy administrator for the Office of Public Health And Science, which falls under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Pathogens Discovered Months Later
As a result, unidentified tainted meat sometimes goes to market, only to be discovered and recalled weeks or months afterwards, a database on the FSIS Web site shows. (See Web link, right.)
In fact, recalls have occurred several times in recent months more than two weeks after meat was produced, often long after "sell by" dates marked on the packaging. For example:
On July 18, Hillshire Farm & Kahns, of Cincinnati, recalled about 13,600 pounds of cooked, sliced beef and ham products, possibly contaminated with salmonella. The meat was produced on April 26 and many had "sell by" dates of June 27 or July 4. The FSIS had tested the products on July 12 after a consumer complaint.
On July 3, Ken Weaver Meats, Inc., of Pennsylvania, recalled about 5,000 pounds of sausage and bologna products, possibly contaminated with residue of penicillin and sulfadimethoxine, an antimicrobial drug. The meat was produced between May 8 and June 10.
On June 24, Excel Corp., of Georgia, recalled about 190,000 pounds of various "Kroger" brand ground beef and pork products possibly contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The meat was produced on May 23 and 24, and FSIS tested it on June 24 after the state of Georgia reported suspected illnesses.
On May 8, Emmpak Foods, Inc., of Wisconsin, recalled about 254,000 pounds of frozen hamburger patties possibly contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The meat was produced on Oct. 20, 2000, and Feb. 8, 2001, and FSIS tested it on May 1 after state officials reported a suspected illness.
On May 5, Emmpak recalled about 471,000 pounds of ground beef possibly contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Some of the meat bore a "sell by" date of March 22. It was produced on March 6 and tested on April 27 after the state of Michigan reported E. coli illnesses.
On Thursday, the largest U.S. meatpacker recalled 500,000 pounds of ground beef produced more than three weeks ago.
Also on Thursday, a report surfaced that federal investigators were told that managers at a meat plant knew meat being shipped was tainted with bacteria that lead to deaths, miscarriages and illness.
Be Careful With Your Meat
Federal officials say they coordinate recalls even months after meat is likely to have been sold or removed from store shelves because it has a way of reappearing in people's kitchens long after "sell by" dates, which are not required or regulated by the federal government on most products. (See Web link, right for directive on recalls.)
"The fact [is] that many individuals leave food in their refrigerators and freezers," Walker says. "They'll buy things on sale and they'll keep things for an extended period of time in their refrigerators and freezers. And you'd be surprised what comes back that's returned to a store after they read or may hear that a recall is being conducted."
Officials say food can stay fresh in a freezer well beyond the "sell by" date if properly stored.
Because every meat sample can't be chemically tested, government health officials recommend that consumers take care to ensure they handle and prepare meat properly.
Could Process Be Faster?
Sometimes, a recall takes time because an investigation into illnesses is involved and investigators must trace the illness back to a source. Testing also can add a week onto the process.
But critics say the system could be faster if officials deployed more thorough scientific testing at production sites, and redoubled efforts to find tests that yield faster results and screen for more types of germs. Currently, the FSIS does rotating sample tests at sites — but does not test every batch of meat, citing practicality, difficulty of testing, and limited resources.
"We're going to send a rocket to the moon, but unfortunately we only have enough resources to buy the nose cone," says Felicia Nestor, food safety project director for the Government Accountability Project, a public-interest law firm. "That's kind of what they're saying.
"There are not enough tests close enough to the production dates, and they are not using real-time tests that could actually prevent those products from going out if it was contaminated," Nestor adds.
Nevertheless, FSIS officials say they move as quickly as possible, and their process for enacting recalls is faster than other government agencies'.
"We move very, very fast," Walker says. "We receive sample results from our laboratories seven days a week. As soon as we are notified either by a company or notified by our own laboratories that a result of their tests that has, in fact, become positive … we immediately go into action."