Rhetorical questions about USDA recalls

Another day, another recall of ground beef possible tainted with E. coli 0157:H7, aka Revenge of the Industrial Food System. Actually, this is just an expanded recall, voluntary of course, because the USDA has no power to force the companies it regulates to recall their products. Kind of like being the parents of rebellious teenagers. You just hope you raised them right ... so they don't go out and kill people.

This one is pretty run of the mill, and that's what's sickening. Literally. The June 3 recall read: "United Food Group, LLC, a Vernon, Calif., establishment, is voluntarily recalling approximately 75,000 pounds of ground beef products because they may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7." Standard language. Note the "may."

According to this 2002 article in the National Provisioner, United Food Group is the "largest processor of ground beef under one roof." Since it doesn't slaughter or "fabricate" — whatever that means — the beef it uses in its products, it is very concerned with food safety. (Note that the actual meatpackers from whence the contaminated beef originated are not named in the recall.) A company rep said back then, "We are exploring the possibility of offering irradiated hamburger patties, as well as exploring the possibility of using ozone on certain product contact surfaces ... [and] also looking at treating beef trimmings with a new antimicrobial intervention using acidified sodium chlorite."

As usual, this latest E. coli recall has brought out the proponents of irradiation. Those would be the parents that, having raised rotten teenagers, are fine with packing them off to adult jail once they go on their inevitable killing spree. Tough love, people.

Why exactly is UFG recalling the beef? "The problem was discovered through sampling done by the California Department of Health Services and the Colorado Department of Health, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the course of an investigation into illnesses." In other words, some people ate the beef, got sick, and the CDC traced it to United Food Group. Which recalled as little as they could get away with. Three days later, today, UFG expanded the recall to 370,000 pounds that were shipped to distribution centers in 11 states.

That's easily enough for more than a million potentially fatal hamburgers.
Where was the beef sold? The USDA can't tell you. Revealing distribution networks would expose the meat companies to all sorts of lawsuits their trade secrets. But United Food Group is nothing but careful. That's why it voluntarily revealed its customer Albertson's, in a joint press release listing the various lot numbers of the recalled Moran's brand ground beef. But not because it could kill people. No, "out of an abundance of caution."

I'm curious about how it defines "abundance." Because all the recalled products have a sell-by date of between April 20, 2007 and May 7, 2007. The press release was issued June 4. That says an abundance of foot-dragging, not caution, to me.

All of the USDA's voluntary recall press releases end with this same little graphic.


She looks so young, yet so serious. In a bigger version on another page you can see she's holding a clipboard and wearing a white lab coat. Surely she will have answers to my questions.

Hi Karen. Is American beef safe to eat?

All beef is inspected for wholesomeness. Beef found in retail stores is either USDA inspected or inspected by state systems that have standards equal to the Federal government. Each steer and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The Passed and Inspected by USDA seal insures the beef is wholesome and free from disease.

Then why is beef getting recalled for E. coli?

E. coli is short for Escherichia coli. It is a type of bacteria that normally live in the intestines of animals and humans. There are hundres of different kinds, or strains, of E. coli, some of which are harmful, but most of which are not. One strain, E. coli 0157:H7, produces a potent toxin, or poison, and can cause severe illness, kidney failure and even death.

Why is there shit in our meat?

This is a U.S. Government Web site. Our site is here to address the serious topic of food safety and to answer your food safety questions. Please type in a food safety question or exit this site.

Where did E. coli 0157:H7 come from?

E. coli is short for Escherichia coli. It is a type of bacteria that normally live in the intestines of animals and humans. There are hundres of different kinds, or strains, of E. coli, some of which are harmful, but most of which are not. One strain, E. coli 0157:H7, produces a potent toxin, or poison, and can cause severe illness, kidney failure and even death.

What is the USDA's role in recalls?

A Virtual Representative (vRep) is an automated information source designed to display answers for questions you type about food safety, food inspection, food storage and preparation, food recalls, and many other topics. Please type a question.

Why can't the USDA tell me where the recalled beef is being sold?

Beef is meat from cattle about 2 years old. A live steer weighs about 1,000 pounds and yields about 450 pounds of edible meat. There are at least 50 breeds of beef cattle, but fewer than 10 make up most cattle produced. Some major breeds are Angus, Hereford, Charolais, and Brahman.

Why is beef with E. coli only being recalled a month after it was sold?

E. coli is short for Escherichia coli. It is a type of bacteria that normally live in the intestines of animals and humans. There are hundres of different kinds, or strains, of E. coli, some of which are harmful, but most of which are not. One strain, E. coli 0157:H7, produces a potent toxin, or poison, and can cause severe illness, kidney failure and even death.

You're not very helpful. Who created you?

We call our automated information source "Ask Karen". This FSIS Virtual Representative can answer food safety questions.

Why am I surprised that the USDA is touting a totally useless, toothless automaton as its answer service?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's mission is to provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management. To learn more about USDA, go to www.usda.gov.

Let's just say "Karen" is not going to be passing the Turing test anytime soon.

8 Responsesto “Rhetorical questions about USDA recalls”

  1. Wendy says:

    "Fabrication" is the industry term for breaking a carcass down into primal cuts, which are then further fabricated into subprimals. When I attended Western Culinary Institute in Portland, OR, a big part of our butchery class was fabrication, but it's being phased out of a lot of culinary programs because, more and more, it's being done at an industrial level instead of in-house.

  2. Corn Maven says:

    I asked Karen, "Why doesn't the USDA approve of raw milk?," and got this reply:

    USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service inspects only meat, poultry and egg products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspects dairy products. Yogurt can be stored in the refrigerator (40 degrees F) 1 to 2 weeks or frozen (0 degrees F) for 1 to 2 months. Soft cheeses such as cottage cheese, ricotta or Brie can be refrigerated one week but they don't freeze well. Hard cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan can be stored in the refrigerator 6 months before opening the package and 3 to 4 weeks after opening. It can also be frozen 3 to 6 months. Processed cheese slices don't freeze well but can be kept in the refrigerator 1 to 2 months. Milk can be refrigerated 7 days; buttermilk, about 2 weeks. Milk may be frozen for about 3 months. Sour cream is safe in the refrigerator about 1 to 3 weeks but doesn't freeze well. For more information about the storage of dairy products, you may call the FDA toll-free at (888) 723-3366 or go to their Web site at http://www.fda.gov. To search a database at the Food Marketing Institute for storage times, go to: Foodkeeper.

    So I asked my question in the FDA's standard search box — I was hoping they had enlisted a "Karl" to answer me — and got this reply:

    No. Raw milk is inherently dangerous.

    And then it goes on to list a whole host of pathogens. (Check out the entire slideshow starting here.)

    I've been drinking Claravale's raw milk now for over two months. I love it!

    p.s. Check out this action alert via I Heart Farms concerning Claravale Dairy. I'm assuming that by now Claravale is on its way to being moooved to new digs. Does anyone know for sure?

  3. Oh my God!
    That's too funny!

    I asked Karen:

    "Why are illegals working on my neighbors dairy farm? It used to be my job."

    She didn't really give me a straight answer.Sort of like my Congressman.
    Gave me a list of dairy responses but couldn't tell me why.

    I next asked
    " Are fertile eggs safe to eat?"

    Here's the response
    If a food has been left in the Danger Zone - between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F - for more than 2 hours, discard it, even though it may look and smell good.

    Bacteria exist everywhere in nature. They are in the soil, air, water, and the foods we eat. When they have nutrients (food), moisture, and favorable temperatures, they grow rapidly, increasing in numbers to the point where some types of bacteria can cause illness.

    Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, some doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. Some types will produce toxins that are not destroyed by cooking.

    Pathogenic bacteria (those that cause illness) do not generally affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. In other words, one cannot tell that a food has been mishandled or is dangerous to eat. For example, food that has been left too long on the counter may be dangerous to eat, but could smell and look fine.

    Never taste a food to see if it is spoiled.

    The USDA is a complete waste of Taxpayer money and is one of many reasons why the US is in the midst of an enormous food crisis.
    I look for things to get much worse :-(

  4. deliberately says:

    Great post DairyQueen. I referenced it on my site as well. A friend who produces grass-fed beef recently posted on her site how challenging it's been lately because of the lack of rain, and how the grass isn't growing like it needs to be to support the herd. She pointed out that raising pastured beef is really not about the cattle, but about raising grass to feed them. I'd never thought about that and asked the USDA site about the connection between grass and beef. You can predict the results!

  5. Archie says:

    This article as posted failed to mention that Karen also offers the following additional help: Meat and Poultry Hotline at: 888-674-6854.

  6. Ali B. says:

    Okay, THAT'S funny. Must have missed Karen's inspiring wisdom last year. Thanks for the laugh.

    Or perhaps it was a snort.

  7. Shaun says:

    I recently bought some beef at a discount grocery store.  When I got home noticed it did not have the USDA inspection label. Is it safe for me and my family to eat?  Why was this meat for sale?

  8. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi Shaun: That's very odd. It may have been imported from another country and not gone through the usual customs process. Or, it could just me be missing its stamp, through an oversight. I would probably take it back to the store and ask for a refund....and I would also say to try to buy the best meat you can afford from a reputable place. Cheap meat is usually not good for your family, the animals, or the planet.