Why the USDA & the FDA should change recall protocols

“There’s shit in the meat.” — Fast Food Nation (the movie), 2006

usda_groundmeat.jpgTyson Fresh Meats is voluntarily recalling more than 8 tons of ground hamburger that may be contaminated with that nasty virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7, the USDA announced today.

(Why doesn’t the USDA come up with catchy names for its bacterial strains, à la the Department of Defense? 0157:H7 could be known as Operation Gut Storm, for example.)

This isn’t that unusual: recalls of various products — say, Peter Pan peanut butter — for contamination with listeria, salmonella, and various other microscopic stomach-ninjas are common. Ground beef turns up on the USDA’s recall list every few months because of E. coli stowaways, most recently Jan. 29.

I find the government’s policy of not identifying the retail outlets where contaminated products were sold truly outrageous, given how often this happens and how many Americans get sick (76 million), even die (5,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control) every year from food-borne illness. Consumers get only a description of the packaging and that’s it, all because historically, the ties between suppliers and food sellers have been considered “proprietary business information.”

According to a recent USA Today article, that could be about to change for meat and poultry recalls. In California, as of July 1, health officials can tell consumers which retailers sold meat and poultry covered by the most serious recalls. Despite appalled squeals of protest from the meat industry — “I don’t know too many companies that would gladly hand over their customer lists for their competitors to see,” says a representative — the USDA is considering following California’s lead.

That would be a good thing. In today’s Tyson recall, for example, the bad beef is described as:

60-pound boxes containing six 10-pound chubs of “ROUND, COARSE GROUND BEEF, 85/15.” The box end also bears a label with the establishment number “Est. 9268″ as well as a “BEST BEFORE OR FROZEN BY” date of “03/08/07″ and packaging date “02/16/07.”

The only information provided about where those hefty “chubs” may have ended up? They were “sent to distributors in Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington.” How is this remotely helpful to consumers?

Lest Ethicurean readers are smugly thinking, “Well I only eat organic beef,” don’t get too complacent. There was an October 2006 recall for a mixture of organic and conventional beef, presumably processed at the same facility that was recalling it. Slaughterhouses that are certified organic are still allowed to handle conventional beef — they’re supposed to process organic animals only when the facility is clean and empty, but those Operation Gut Storm bacteria are some tenacious little bastards.

But butcher shop and slaughterhouse contamination aside, whether your beef is organic or conventional matters less than the grass- versus grain-fed distinction. There’s a growing body of evidence that E. coli 0157:H7 is partial to taking up residence in the stomachs of cows that have been acidified by being fed grain (starch), instead of the grass (fiber) they were designed to digest. A Feb. 26 story in the Centre Daily Times of Pennsylvania has a good overview of the argument – thanks for the link, Anna — and also contains this telling paragraph:

In a recent study, USDA researcher James Russell found that switching grain-fed cows to hay for the last five days before slaughter can reduce the incidence of acid-resistant strains of E. coli by up to 80 percent. According to Tedd Heilman of farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley, Russell’s study caught on among organic farmers. There are many who switch their cattle from grain to hay before slaughter.

Huh? you say. Why are organic farmers feeding their cows grain? Possibly because quite a few of the new purveyors are conventional feedlot farmers looking for higher profit margins, but that’s a subject for another post.

Back to the USDA. It’s an excellent idea, and long overdue, to identify where contaminated meat and poultry was sold, and I hope they do it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the faintest idea what the original packaging for my fresh ground beef from the meat counter at Berkeley Bowl looked like.

The Food and Drug Administration, however, says it doesn’t plan to change its practices: it will continue to withhold the names of retailers of contaminated dairy products and oh, things like spinach. In the Byzantine world of food safety, the USDA and the FDA are responsible for lots of things that overlap. As Eric Schlosser wrote in an New York Times op-ed in December, “If a packaged ham sandwich has two pieces of bread, the F.D.A. is in charge of inspecting it — one piece of bread, and Agriculture is in charge. A sandwich-making factory regulated by the Agriculture Department will be inspected every day, while one inspected by the F.D.A. is likely to be inspected every five years.”

Or less. Last week Time reported that the FDA is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago.

Now, who wants a hamburger? Hold the lettuce, maybe?

7 Responsesto “Why the USDA & the FDA should change recall protocols”

  1. Sam Fromartz says:

    Interesting post. One note: There’s a misconception that grain’s only used by large-scale farms. It is, but small farmers use grain too, especially in places where there aren’t fresh forages year-round. Think of Upper Midwest or Vermont in the winter. 100 percent grass-fed is really particular to some regions, which is why we see grass-fed meat from Australia: they have a lot of grasses year-round.

  2. DairyQueen says:

    Hi Sam: Yes, quite a few small-scale farms even around here in Northern California finish with grain — for “consistency,” they say, and I think to better approximate the cornfed taste Americans are used to. The more grassfed purists feed silage, usually from their own pastures, in the winter to augment the meager grass forage; do you know why that practice is less common in the Midwest and Northern England?

  3. Randal Dovel says:

    It doesn’t really matter if the ground beef has e coli. If you cook it properly it will kill all the bacteria. Same with all other bacteria i.e. salmonella.

  4. Larry L Johnson says:

    In Midwest cattle don’t do good on just pasture silage.you have to starve them to eat it,or mix corn silage with it or ground corn.Cows will rather eat hay.Would you eat ice cream out side when its 20 below?

  5. Anka Kitunzi says:

    I will be visiting the US from Africa during June 2007 and I am interested in visiting small scale mixed farms and small scale poultry and non-graze cattle farms in the areas of Utah and Maryland states. I need information so that I may make arrangements.

  6. DairyQueen says:

    hi Anka: I don’t know what you mean by “non-graze,” but you can find listings of farms by state at Local Harvest and pasture-based ones via the EatWild directory. Good luck with your trip.

  7. Waa-gaanfundura! says:

    Anka did you mean “non cross breed “Zero graze!! Eatwild is a good directory.