Big problems? Blame the little guy

Been feeling a bit queasy about all the contaminated meat peppering the news lately? Put that weary stomach to rest. Yes, children, all is well with the world (or at least the world of ground beef). In yet another illustration of its almost preternatural ability to correctly identify and attack food-safety problems at the source, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has issued a clarion call: Small and very small meat processing plants need better testing of ground beef. And, reports Food Chemical News today (sorry, subscription only), FSIS has new guidelines to show them how to do things right.

Huh. That’s funny. I was under the impression — mistaken, I’m sure — that the recent beef recalls originated at large processing plants. Very, very large ones. Forgive me. I probably had salmonella at the time or something.

But I digress. Today, FSIS released new E. coli-testing guidelines for small meat processing plants. The guidelines were released at the same time as a lengthy report [pdf, 200 pages] on the testing practices used by meat processing facilities of various sizes. You might think, then, that the report had some light to shine on testing at small-scale plants, problems the new guidelines will help to fix. Ah, but that would be too simple for the crafty FSIS! They chose instead to take a more roundabout route. The report summarized the number of meat processing plants of each size (small and very small operations account for 93% of all U.S. processors) and the amount of meat they process (small and very small operations process roughly 10% of all U.S. beef). It then proceeded to present the results of its survey on E. coli testing procedures without breaking any of the findings out by operation size, leaving us to intuit which ones had the problems. It makes the whole process more exciting, really– a veritable adventure in food-safety mind reading.

The report was prompted, say its authors, by the “unusual number of positive [E. coli] samples” taken by FSIS in recent months, and by the increase in recalls associated with the nasty bug. So it’s interesting that the guidelines issued today apply only to a category of processors that were not associated with the recalls. And even if they had been, the guidelines don’t apply to the specific cuts of meat — enticingly called “bench trim” in industry-speak, or “left-over scraps” to us layfolk — that, ground up, caused the outbreak of E. coli in the most recent Nebraska Beef recall.

But it’s OK. FSIS Deputy Administrator Dan Engeljohn offers soothing words in the Food Chemical News article, assuring the public that bench trim is “a vulnerability we will prioritize in the next few months.”

I’ll let that one go without comment.

I don’t mean to suggest that food safety — in processing plants of all sizes — is unimportant. Not at all. I’m just taking issue with FSIS’ problem-identification skills — and, alright, with its solution-identification skills, too. Time and time again, we find the industrial meat system turning out contaminated meat (and other fun things, like workers rights violations, environmental pollution, and antibiotic resistance) like Santa’s elves turn out toys. Getting to the root of the problem will mean much stronger regulations for the industrial guys, and it will also mean supporting safer models of meat production and processing.  That means supporting a smaller scale of meat-making: The operations that process less meat, do it at a slower pace, and are more directly accountable to consumers because there’s a chance those consumers are their next-door neighbors.

Today’s regulations, unfortunately, might do just the opposite. Small-scale meat processors are already falling off the map. As I reported here, USDA’s food safety regulations have been built for the big guys. Imposed on the little guys — whose problems, I think it’s fair to say, are pretty different — the costs have often been too much to bear. Of course they need to be regulated; but the regulations need to be appropriate to their scale. Will today’s guidelines jack up the line speed on the slaughter of small slaughterhouses? From the article:

Each test can cost a processor between $40 and $50, which may not seem like much, but if most small and very small processors must send their samples off-site for testing, and if an establishment only produces 1,000 pounds of ground beef in a day or a week, that adds up quickly, says [Jay Wenther, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, which represents small plants.] “It’s getting more and more cost-prohibitive for the little guys to operate,” he continues. “The USDA doesn’t realize or want to acknowledge this… This guidance fails to give examples [applicable to small plants.] It’s going to be the death of the small beef processor.”

Sigh. If you weren’t already rethinking that burger, you may want to do so now.

Ground beef courtesy of istock photo.

4 Responsesto “Big problems? Blame the little guy”

  1. How strange- I read this same report yesterday.  While I hate to see the regulatory costs pile up on the small-scale facilities, the fact that there is no mandatory E.coli testing on trim and intact cuts that get turned into ground beef is ridiculous.  Whole Foods was blamed for grinding contaminated intact cuts into ground beef at their stores, but most retailers prefer to grind at their own stores, thinking it produces a cleaner, fresher product.  Maybe the retailers need to cover some of the additional cost of testing, but all parts of the cow need to be tested if they are going to get ground up.

  2. Sophie says:

    Don’t worry. Soon you’ll be able to do your own e.Coli optical scanning right in the supermarket:

  3. justfoodnow says:

    Please investigate South Africa!  Would love to hear what happens here – it would take some doing, but I was so fascinated by this article.

  4. Topdog says:

    I’m beginning to wonder if the USDA is totally corrupt.  I find it depressing and unamerican to make things more difficult for the small operations and at the same time insinuate that they were the cause of the breakout, when they were not. It smells to high heaven, just like feedlots!