The impact of the hot, dry weather is rippling throughout the food chain. McDonald's Corporation is worried about the supply of cows needed to produce the lean hamburger beef used by the restaurant chain. McDonald's, which buys about a billion pounds of meat annually, began importing lean beef from Australia and New Zealand this spring as U.S. supplies tightened.
Supply concerns pale in comparison to the problems faced by some of the nation's largest beef providers. On Friday, ConAgra Foods announced it was expanding an earlier meat recall to now include some 18-million pounds of ground beef in 21 states. It's the second largest recall on record, topped only by the 25-million pound beef recall in 1997 by the now-defunct Hudson Foods.
In the latest case, 18 illnesses have been attributed to beef contaminated with the potentially lethal E. coli 0157.H7.
The presence of E. Coli in the meat was confirmed by Department of Agricuture inspectors on June 19. It then took 10 days for USDA personnel to trace and confirm the source of the contamination and before ConAgra was informed of the problem. The long delay prompted the interim director of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, to revamp government policy concerning food-borne pathogens. Companies now will be informed immediately when the dangerous strain of E. coli is found. Consumer advocates claim the new policy is a win-win for purchasers AND processors. Since the beginning of the year, food-borne pathogens account for nearly half of the FSIS food recalls.
In 1993, the bacteria caused more than 600 illnesses as well as multiple deaths from a single contamination incident. The widespread impact of the contamination was due partly to increased concentration in the packing industry, a change that has affected the way food-borne pathogens travel through the food system. Because such large quantities of meat are processed in a single facility and then distributed nationally, food poisoning outbreaks from dangerous bacteria have become less regionalized and the source of contamination more difficult to pinpoint.
The new USDA policy to inform packers more quickly in the event of contamination will likely address this issue.