In late September, Topps Meat Company recalled 21.7 million pounds of ground beef for possible contamination with E. coli O157:H7, which can leave consumers with bloody diarrhea and, in the worse cases, kidney failure and death. The recall put Topps out of business, but the problem goes beyond a single company. In today’s New York Times, Christopher Drew and Andrew Martin report that safety problems existed at Topps for months prior to the recall, but federal inspectors failed to cite the company for anything besides cleanliness problems (which the USDA described as routine).
The specific problems at the Topps facility included an inadequate frequency of microbial testing, inadequate testing of raw beef from suppliers, and mixing of tested and untested meat in mixing machines. Once E. coli contamination was found in Topps products, the company’s mixing of batches and poor recordkeeping made it hard to determine which products might be affected, and so the USDA urged the company to recall a full year’s worth of products (which it did).
All of the Topps problems happened under the noses of USDA inspectors. Drew and Martin explore what this says about meat safety in general:
Five years ago, the government demanded more stringent safeguards against contamination because of a deadly form of the germ E. coli. But federal regulators now acknowledge that the controls are not working in some meat plants. They are trying to figure out what went wrong and how to overcome the dangers. …
The Topps case is the most serious of 16 recalls this year involving E. coli contamination of beef. That is a sharp increase from 2005 and 2006, and the resurgence of the pathogen raises questions about whether the Agriculture Department has given the meat industry too much leeway to police itself.
“We’re beginning to feel that the 2002 guidelines have not been enacted to the maximum,” Dr. Richard A. Raymond, the Agriculture Department’s under secretary for food safety, said in an interview in Washington.
While noting that the amount of harmful E. coli in beef may be increasing as part of a natural cycle or for other reasons outside the control of the meat industry, Dr. Raymond said that “some of the plants that may have had less-than-stellar systems in place are getting caught.” …
Consumer groups and other critics say it is startling that the agency does not have a better handle on the problems, which they see as emblematic of a cozy relationship between the Agriculture Department and the meat industry. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, said the Agriculture Department’s approach to enforcement was “haphazard, catch as catch can.” She added, “They just lay it out and make recommendations” that are “summarily ignored.”
And this is from an agency that’s relatively well-positioned to catch food safety problems – something former FDA deputy commissioner for policy Mike Taylor explained in a food safety presentation last month (see Kristen Perosino’s post for more). Meat-processing facilities get daily visits from USDA inspectors – although, as a recent Chicago Tribune article noted, unfilled vacancies at the agency mean that inspectors have to cover more facilities and spend less time at each one. The USDA gets a large share of food-safety dollars; FDA, on the other hand, is responsible for 80% of our nation’s food but gets roughly one-third the food-safety budget. Both agencies need the funding and leadership that will allow them to keep our food safe. It’s an investment that’s worth it.