"I don't think we'll ever see a totally bacteria-free environment in the United States," Ed Schafer said Tuesday during a visit of several Nebraska meat processing plants.
His tour didn't include the Nebraska Beef Ltd. plant in Omaha, which recalled 5.3 million pounds of meat last week that has been linked to 41 E. coli infections in Michigan and Ohio.
Schafer said he thinks the company, not the USDA inspectors at the plant, should be held responsible for the tainted meat. He said the inspectors are only there to make sure the plant follows USDA rules.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service concluded last week that Nebraska Beef's production practices were insufficient to effectively control E. coli bacteria.
Now the focus is on determining exactly how the meat was contaminated at Nebraska Beef, he said, and making sure steps are taken to prevent future problems.
Schafer's tour was designed to showcase innovative ways companies are working to keep meat safe. He visited a Hormel pork plant in Fremont where the processed, canned meat Spam is made, a Cargill Meat Solutions beef plant in Schuyler, and an Omaha Steaks processing plant in Omaha.
Schafer said he's amazed at the relatively small number of people who get sick from eating meat each year when the number is compared to the millions of pounds of meat produced.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that E. coli sickens about 73,000 people and kills 61 each year in the United States. Most of those who die have weak immune systems, such as the elderly or very young.
E. coli bacteria was discovered in the late 1970s and is present in the intestines of most cattle. It also can be found in deer, goats and sheep. It doesn't cause problems for the livestock, but the E. coli 0157:H7 variant can cause severe illness in humans.
Industry critics say staff shortages are compounded by a change in USDA regulations in the late 1990s that gave slaughterhouses more responsibility for devising their own safety checklists. That policy, critics say, places slaughterhouses on an honor system that can lead to abuse.
But meat companies say they are developing new strategies to control bacteria.
At the Cargill plant, cattle carcasses are washed down with chemical solutions before and after the hides are removed to help reduce E. coli.
Later in the process, sides of beef are examined under ultraviolet light that reveals any hint of chlorophyll. The presence of that plant chemical on the beef suggests contact with feces and possible E. coli contamination. The beef is pulled aside so any contaminated areas can be removed.
The hide-washing system and UV scanners Cargill uses are examples of the kind of measures the meat industry has developed to control E. coli since a 1993 outbreak in which four children died and hundreds of people became ill after eating undercooked hamburgers from Jack in the Box restaurants.
"Most of this equipment you had to invent, and test and test," said Vaughn Blum, general manager of the Cargill plant.
At Omaha Steaks, all of the ground beef is irradiated after it has been packaged to kill any bacteria that is present.
Hormel uses a high-pressure pasteurization process to ensure that its pork is safe. That step also takes place after packaging.
But Schafer doesn't think innovative food safety measures like the ones he saw in Nebraska should necessarily be required for all plants because each company chooses what works for them.
Schafer said the plants he visited all appeared well run and safety was a priority.
"I wish everybody would have a chance to see the process," Schafer said. Then they could see the cleanliness of the plant, and all the effort that goes into producing a safe product, he said.