USDA is telling companies that ship meat, poultry and eggs to tighten security in places where terrorists could tamper with food. Guidelines offered up this week are voluntary. But USDA says meatpackers, shipping companies, and retailers have a vested interest in making sure food is safe for consumption.
Unfortunately, that logic is true even without the threat of terrorism. A case in point is the meat industry, which endured recalls of more than 50-million pounds last year. In the first of a two-part look at the issue of meat safety, producer John Nichols found cause for concern.
Barbara Kowalcyk: "Finally, on August 11th at 8:20 p.m. after being resuscitated twice, as doctors were attempting to put him on a heart and lung machine, our beloved Kevin died. He was only two years, eight months and one day old."
In 2001, after consuming food contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, Barbara Kowalcyk's son Kevin died.
For most healthy people, a battle with E. coli would produce flu-like symptoms that resolve in 5 to 10 days. But in some, particularly children under 5 years of age, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, the pathogen can lead to life-threatening illnesses.
Barbara Kowalcyk: "We did not know the risks we were taking by feeding our child a hamburger."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC in Atlanta, every year in the United States, there are approximately 76 million cases of foodborne illness, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
Patrick Boyle is the head of the American Meat Institute, the nation's largest meat and poultry trade association. He claims the incidence of foodborne illnesses attributable to meat and poultry products is low.
Patrick Boyle: "They estimate about 76 million illnesses a year; about five million or four million of those CDC estimates are from bacteria that's commonly associated with meat and poultry products. But those same bacteria are also associated with fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, some dairy products, seafood. But CDC estimates that less than five percent of the illnesses that occur annually in the United States are associated with bacteria that may occur in meat and poultry products."
CDC estimates 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occur in the United States each year due to E. coli. Most of the illnesses have been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef. Yet Boyle insists America's meat supply is safe.
Patrick Boyle: "It's never been safer. All of the empirical evidence from the Department of Agriculture shows that these products are getting safer year after year. The Center for Disease Control which tracks foodborne illnesses in the United States has reported a 23% drop in foodborne illnesses associated with our products."
In 1993, after a lethal outbreak of E. coli swept through the Pacific Northwest, the government established a new regulatory system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP. The program shifted responsibility for meat safety away from USDA inspectors to the meat companies, which implemented microbial tests for harmful bacteria.
Critics claim recent court decisions have stripped the USDA of its legal authority to close the facilities if problems arise, effectively putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Boyle claims the meat industry is capable of self-regulation and points to HACCP as one of the chief reasons why.
Patrick Boyle: "HACCP is a comprehensive, state of the art process control approach, if you will, that we use in our plants to identify specific problem areas that may exist where the food may be vulnerable to bacteria. That system is now required in every meat and poultry plant in the country and according to government officials is probably one of the major factors that has resulted in lower bacteria rates in raw meat and poultry products."
According to a CDC report released in 2002, the incidence of reported foodborne illnesses due to Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli 0157:H7 and Listeria did decline from 1996 to 2001.
Carol Tucker Foreman, the head of the Consumer Federation of America, acknowledges improvements by the meat industry. But she says more recent data don't support all the claims of increased food safety.
Carol Tucker Foreman: "Two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control reported that since 1996, there really has not been a diminution in E. coli 0157:H7 food poisoning and salmonella. Some forms of salmonella have increased in the past couple of years. So it's a long way from being solved."
The report Foreman referred to includes preliminary data released by CDC in April of 2003, which shows that the incidence rate of foodborne infections caused by Campylobacter and Listeria did decline between 1996 and 2002. Nevertheless, the same report shows other foodborne infections including E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella are not declining.
Foreman acknowledges other sources of the pathogens, but claims meat and poultry products are the foods most often associated with deadly outbreaks.
Carol Tucker Foreman: "E. coli 0157:H7 poisoning which is really the most lethal here is known to come only from the intestines of cattle. Everybody understands that meat and poultry products are highly susceptible to contamination. They are traditionally and consistently one of the primary sources of foodborne illness."
While it is common for cattle to test positive for E. coli when they arrive at packing plants, meat industry officials claim improvements in hide removal and other processes reduce the likelihood of the pathogen being transferred to the finished product. According to the American Meat Institute, E. coli is found in ground beef less than one percent of the time.
Patrick Boyle: "Our long-term objective to ensure that when ground beef leaves our facility it's E. coli-free. If you look from farm to table, the final critical control point is the preparation of that product. The consumer does have a role to play. Just like the livestock producer, just like the meat and poultry processor, they too have a role to play, an important role in ensuring the safety and integrity of the nation's food supply."
Barbara Kowalcyk: "If there's E. coli in meat, that means there's cow manure in the meat. Consumers didn't put it there. I don't care how thoroughly you cook it, I don't want to eat it and I certainly don't want my children to eat it."
In recent years millions of pounds of meat and poultry products have been voluntarily recalled by the meat industry. The initiatives are voluntary, since USDA does not have the legal authority to mandate recalls.
Next week, we'll examine the controversy over how the government regulates the meat industry. We'll look at Congressional attempts to give USDA more regulatory authority, and we'll discuss other attempts to ensure the safety of America's meat supply from the feedlot, to the fork.
For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.