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Meat Incident Illustrates Danger Of Slacking Standards And Oversight

As we bring to a close our Single Step Award series, which recognizes the efforts of key industry leaders to boost food safety following the spinach crisis of late 2006, and as the industry congratulates itself on the expansion of the California Marketing Agreement to cover Arizona, the industry would do very well to pay close attention to the food safety problems with hamburger.

We have dealt with this issue recently right here. Now The New York Times ran a piece entitled, Many Red Flags Preceded a Recall of Hamburger:

Five years ago, the government demanded more stringent safeguards against contamination because of a deadly form of the germ E. coli. …

Two years ago, after an 8-year-old girl in Albany County, N.Y., was sickened by Topps ground beef, the Agriculture Department scrutinized the Elizabeth plant and found relatively few problems. But since then, the department said, Topps cut its microbial testing on finished ground beef from once a month to three times a year, a level the department considers inadequate.

Federal investigators said they had recently learned that the company failed to require adequate testing on the raw beef it bought from its domestic suppliers, and it sometimes mixed tested and untested meat in its grinding machines.

The Agriculture Department acknowledged that its safety inspectors, who were in the Topps plant for an hour or two each day, never cited the company for these problems….

Perhaps the biggest question is why government inspectors did not catch the Topps problems as they were occurring, and whether inspectors in other plants around the country have missed similar problems.

Not only is the government beginning special assessments of meat plants to try to figure that out, but it plans additional training for meat inspectors to be sure they understand the safety plans — and how to hold companies to them.

Dr. Raymond said, “We are going to do this survey to find out if we just had a couple of plants that had fallen apart or if we’ve got a bigger problem.”

Note there already exists for meat the mandatory, uniform, federal food safety regulation that United and PMA have called for in the produce industry.

Next time someone tells you that the California Marketing Agreement guarantees things are being done to spec because there are government inspectors that come around every once in awhile, note that in the Topps meat recall the government inspectors were in the plant EVERY SINGLE DAY!

We’ve been hearing from many knowledgeable sources that the metrics as they exist cannot be executed by many farmers — much less future, presumably tougher metrics.

And this makes sense. Farming ability, like other abilities, probably falls along a bell curve. How can every single farmer do a great job with something so tough?

Yet we are not hearing about farmers failing and being thrown out of the program.

It is unlikely this means that 100% of the producers are performing well 100% of the time.

The industry better start thinking about how we can make sure that The New York Times doesn’t, one day, after a company has a food safety incident, run an article saying that the CMA acknowledged its government safety inspectors never cited the company for its violations.

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