Battling a July Fourth Beef Recall

Before firing up the grill this weekend, you may want to know more about the beef.

Just in time for Fourth of July barbecues, concerns about E. coli-tainted beef are again plaguing the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

On Sunday, the USDA announced a massive expansion of a recall first announced last week focused on questionable beef from a major global beef producer.

"Safe food handling is always important, but during peak grilling season in the warm summer months, there needs to be an increased awareness of safe food handling practices," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today.

The latest voluntary beef recall came from JBS Swift Beef Company, which expanded its recall "out of an abundance of caution for consumers." The company is calling its customers and sending out letters to alert them to the recall.

"It is important for consumers to note that the recalled product from the date in question was sold by JBS as whole muscle cuts, not as ground beef," company spokesman Chandler Keys said Sunday. "The ground beef that might have been associated with illness was produced by other companies who often do not use the antimicrobial intervention steps we employ in our facility to reduce the risk of the beef products."

Ground beef is typically cause for more concern than steak because the inside and the outside of the product have been mixed together. Someone would need to pierce the skin of a steak for E. coli to get inside. That could happen if a meatpacker uses a needle to pump flavoring and tenderizer into meat.

"If you're grilling steaks, it's not the same level of concern," said Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations at the National Meat Association. "The steaks are going to be sterile on the insides as long as they haven't been tenderized."

But the question remains: Where did the more than 421,000 pounds of recalled beef products go from there? Food safety experts are not yet sure where the meat was shipped once it left the Greeley, Colo.-based plant -- nor what grocery stores and, ultimately, refrigerators it may have landed in.

That's exactly what a rule issued late last summer was designed to avoid. The rule requires the FSIS to publicize within 10 days a list of all stores where recalled meat and poultry may have been sold to shoppers.

But Bill Marler, an attorney focused on food poisoning cases with the Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark, said if the FSIS waits 10 days, the information would be of little help to consumers who have already prepared for the holiday weekend -- even if the FSIS is following the rule.

"It just seems inconceivable to me that they can't release this information more timely so people who have this in their refrigerator know what to do with it or know what not to do with it," Marler said.

"Whether they're absolutely following the rule or not, this is the kind of information that JBS Swift should have at their fingertips," he added.

Meantime, Russell said "of course" it's safe to eat meat this weekend. He said the industry's voluntary recall system is indeed effective and "it's very fast."

"They have an effective tracking mechanism. The challenge is that the products been consumed," Russell said. "We don't know what remains."

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