Meat Safety Failure

E. Coli contamination can happen at any point during slaughterhouse operations, a result of fecal matter entering the meat supply.© Getty Images

A recent article in The New York Times points to failings among companies to properly inspect beef processing for E. Coli bacteria, which sickens tens of thousands of Americans each year. The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA), meanwhile, with just "15,000 spot checks a year at thousands of meat plants and groceries" cannot provide comprehensive safety assurance. In the article, "E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection," the Times traces the origins of E. Coli-contaminated beef from a Cargill processing plant in 2007 that left a now-22-year-old Minnesota woman, a former children"s dance instructor, paralyzed from the waist down. Cargill is the largest U.S. private company, with $116.6 billion in revenues last year, and saves money in producing its frozen beef patties by supplementing meat with fat trimmings from various suppliers. One of these suppliers includes Greater Omaha Packing, "where some 2,600 cattle are slaughtered daily and processed in a plant the size of four football fields," according to the article. The E. Coli contamination can happen at any point during slaughterhouse operations, and occurs when fecal matter enters the meat supply.

"As the trimmings are going down the processing line into combos or boxes, no one is inspecting every single piece," said one federal inspector.

The article did note that retail giant Costco is one of the few producers that tests the trimmings for E. Coli before grinding, following a case in which one woman in 1998 was sickened by the store"s hamburger meat. The retailer’s commitment to safety testing has meant meat-producer Tyson will not supply Costco.

One scientist working with the Times found that the pathogen was so powerful, that even properly cooking the meat at 160 degrees wouldn’t prevent the spread. A few cells present on a kitchen counter or cutting board would double every 45 minutes in a warm kitchen, and would spread easily from counter to kitchen towel, despite washing with soap.

In the case of Cargill, the company faces multimillion dollar lawsuits from affected individuals, but the USDA never found the original source of the contaminated beef product. And then there"s this: "A recent industry test in which spiked samples of meat were sent to independent laboratories used by food companies found that some missed the E. coli in as many as 80 percent of the samples."

SOURCE: The New York Times