Meat Cause for Concern Among Regulators and Consumers
Each year, 73,000 Americans become sick from undercooked beef and 2,100 are hospitalized from food poisoning, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Between the alarming string of meat recalls in recent months and the USDA's effort to obtain greater legal authority over meat processing facilities, consumers face significant challenges to ensuring food safety.
The types and incidences of meat-related illnesses are becoming increasingly widespread and consumers are becoming more cognizant than ever of the dangers associated with raw or undercooked meat. Yet federal systems and policies have continuously taken a reactive stance amidst this growing atmosphere of contamination.
Several strains of Escherichia Coli 0157:H7 (E.coli) are among the most serious and prevalent pathogens infecting the U.S. meat supply. This past summer, ConAgra Foods, Inc., issued a voluntary recall of 18.6 million pounds of potentially E.coli-contaminated ground beef after 19 cases of illness were reported in three states. The recall - the second largest of its kind in U.S. history - affected sales in 21 states.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that not only can E.coli infection lead to bloody diarrhea and kidney failure, but the bacteria also kill 61 Americans annually. The E.coli organism, which often lives in the intestines of cattle, may contaminate the meat during slaughter and become a threat to consumers as it is thoroughly mixed into beef during the grinding process. Other common causes of E.coli transmission include person-to-person contact, particularly due to lax hand-washing practices, drinking unpasteurized milk and swimming in, or ingesting, sewage-contaminated water.
Another recent meat-related scare has centered on the deadly Listeria monocytogenes (listeria) outbreak spreading across the northeast. Over the last few months, a startling number of cases have been reported, sparking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to issue a health advisory in September.
For healthy individuals, symptoms of Listeriosis are usually short-term and include severe headache, high fever, abdominal pain, stiffness, nausea and diarrhea. However, those with weakened immune systems may face critical risks, causing miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women and severe infections among newborns and the elderly. The outbreak has sickened over 50 people and has claimed the lives of at least seven so far.
In addition to the well-publicized E.coli and listeria outbreaks, a recent report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) points to an increase among school children in the frequency of food-related salmonella and Norwalk-like viruses, which cause vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Food illnesses in schools rose by an average of ten percent each year between 1990 and 1999. According to the report, most food illnesses at schools were a result of poor food storage, handling or serving practices.
Though the USDA is traditionally the lead Federal agency responsible for ensuring food safety, several regulations and policies challenge the agency's authority in this area. In December 2001, a federal appeals court decision (Supreme Beef Processors, Inc. v. United States Dept. of Agriculture, No. 00-11008, 5th Circuit, 12/06/2001) prohibited the USDA from shutting down meat processing plants that repeatedly output meat contaminated with salmonella.
The GAO points to the current U.S. food safety system itself as part of the problem, stating the system is "affected by other overarching problems, such as the challenge of effectively coordinating the food safety activities of multiple agencies including coordinating multi-state outbreaks…as a result we have inefficient use of resources and inconsistencies in oversight and enforcement."
Amidst the regulatory battles, concern mounts for the safety of U.S. food supplies- particularly regarding the importation of foreign meat, which accounts for 10% of the U.S.'s overall meat consumption. The USDA, in close coordination with other state and federal agencies, currently is researching and developing plans to address the issue in its future food safety programs. But critics of the agency claim that despite USDA inspectors having visited Mexican and French plants that packed and shipped contaminated meat to the United States, little has been done to prevent future violations.
Changes on the Horizon?
In mid-August 2002, USDA officials devised new tactics aimed at lax meat processing plants. The agency announced that while it was unable to shut down plants when salmonella was detected, it would respond to the elevated bacteria levels in other ways. By conducting increased testing at the plants, which could highlight additional food safety violations beyond salmonella contamination, the agency would seek to find alternate opportunities to penalize and/or shut down unsafe plants. The USDA insists that its new tactics will respond to the equipment and procedures that allowed the bacterial detection failures, not the bacteria itself.
Consumer advocates such as Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said the USDA plan set forth in August provides "no certainty of an action to be taken by a set time… during this time the company is going to turn out meat stamped 'USDA Approved.'"
Foreman also criticized the federal government's response to the listeria outbreak, saying, "Industry and the Agriculture Department argue that the victims got sick because they didn't act responsibly. In fact, the illnesses are the result of inexcusable dereliction of duty by the government agency charged with assuring meat safety."
In mid-November 2002, the USDA then issued a food-safety directive aimed at preventing listeria contamination at meat processing plants producing certain meat and poultry products. Under the directive, producers that do not have an evaluated testing regime designed, or do not submit their test results to the FSIS, will be subjected to intensified testing by FSIS officials.
On the legislative front, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee proposed a bill that would clarify and strengthen the USDA's role and responsibilities. In addition, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced a bill that would grant greater protection to whistleblowers at meat plants and provide stricter policing for food borne pathogens. The proposed bills were not acted upon prior to the end of the legislative session, but are expected to be re-introduced in the 108th Congress.
A Role for the Consumer
While the regulatory environment surrounding tainted meat continues to evolve, one thing remains certain: consumers must follow time-tested, proven food safety practices when handling meat*:
Strict adherence to these guidelines helps ensure the safety of consumers and decreases the risk posed by contaminated meat.
Further, the caution of experts should not be taken lightly. When recalls or advisories are issued, heed federal warnings and never consume products that could be part of the identified contaminated supply.
For more information
about food safety, please visit:
Food Safety and Inspection
Service (FSIS) of the USDA:
of America (CFA):
U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention:
U.S. Food and Drug
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