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What Does Beef Recall Tell Us About Food Safety?

The situation in the meat industry should scare the produce industry silly. Why? Because it demonstrates that food safety is not a problem that gets solved, it simply gets managed.

Bill Marler, the ace plaintiff’s attorney on food safety issues who brought the original lawsuits against Jack-in-the-Box, put it this way:

Earlier this year J. Patrick Boyle, President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute, wrote in part in the New York Times: “Since 1999, the incidence of E. coli in ground beef samples tested by the Agriculture Department has declined by 80 percent to a fraction of a percent, a level once thought impossible.” In January 2007 I agreed with Mr. Boyle. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat declined by some 42 percent over the last five years. Perhaps our beef was safer in January but something has changed, and it has not changed for the better.

A decade ago most of my clients were sickened by E. coli-tainted meat. In fact, between 1993 and 2002, I represented hundreds of children with acute kidney failure caused by consuming E. coli-tainted ground beef. And, then it nearly stopped. For the last five years, there were few recalls or illnesses tied to ground beef. I touted the meat industry as a model of what an industry could do that was right to protect consumers.

But then it changed this spring. Since April of this year, 30 million pounds of red meat, mostly ground beef products, have been recalled. To put that in perspective, that is enough red meat to make 120 million hamburgers. E. coli illnesses once on a downturn have spiked. Kids are getting sick, seriously sick, again — nearly 100 since April. Topps Meat Company expanded its 300,000-pound recall to include 21 million pounds of ground beef. This recall tops the Con Agra recall of 19 million pounds in 2002 that sickened over forty and killed one and is just under the 25 million pounds recalled by now-bankrupt Hudson Foods in 1997.

In other words, the beef industry — and even lawyers who make a living suing the beef industry — thought that the beef industry had solved its food safety problems. In fact, the example was so important that the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative specifically referenced the beef industry’s food safety mechanism as a model for produce:

We further call for the formation of a third-party organization modeled on the Center for Produce Quality (and, where appropriate, Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCO)). The BIFSCO model is compelling because it addresses the entire food supply pipeline, from farm to table, and thus involves growers, processors, shippers, distributors, foodservice operators, and retailers. We acknowledge that food safety is a shared responsibility, both operationally and financially.

Here at the Pundit, we did an important piece built around an interview with James “Bo” Reagan, Ph.D., Chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, which you can read here.

The cause of the problem is unknown. Experts speculate about wet weather, complacent suppliers, inexperienced suppliers, corn prices going up (causing a change in feed composition), FSIS inspectors being complacent or worse, immigration raids have replaced experienced employees with novices. There is even speculation of the evolution of the pathogen itself, so that those bacteria that have survived the food safety systems have reproduced and multiplied, passing on immunities to their offspring.

Whatever the cause, companies are now folding under the weight of a problem the industry thought it had solved.

For the beef industry, this is somewhat pathetic since stores such as Wegmans do a bang up job with irradiated hamburger — as we mentioned here and here.

In produce, without that certain “kill step,” the beef industry’s story tells us we can’t be lulled into thinking that a year or two or five without an outbreak means something. It may just be the lull before the storm.

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