Recipe for Contaminated Meat

The Whole Foods chain is recalling fresh ground beef sold in several states between June 2 and August 6, 2008 after seven people in Massachusetts were sickened by E. coli 0157:H7 that was linked to the meat. Illnesses have also been reported in 11 other states, DC, and Canada. The meat came from Nebraska Beef, and was sold to Whole Foods by Coleman Natural Meats.

In todayâs Washington Post, Annys Shin notes that this recall highlights a difference in the way USDA treats different cuts of meat:

The ground beef that Whole Foods recalled was made using primal or intact cuts -- meat typically used for steaks and roasts -- produced by Nebraska Beef under the Coleman Natural Meats brand, Whole Foods said.

Regulators do not monitor meat sold for steaks and roasts as closely as meat sold for ground beef because those primal cuts are less likely to make people sick. For example, if a steak is contaminated, the bacteria are most likely on the outside and killed during cooking. By contrast, with ground beef, the pathogen gets mixed in and can survive if the interior isn't heated to 160 degrees.

Whole Foods grinds its own beef in an attempt to assure quality and safety, said spokeswoman Kate Lowery. In this case, the company said, the cuts used had already been contaminated.

Beef consumers might hope that meat producers would be eager to keep this particularly dangerous strain off E. coli off all of their products, but the industry evidently doesnât want to be required to clean up its primal cuts:

Earlier this year, USDA officials announced a public meeting to discuss formally expanding the policy on E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef to include primal cuts. They quickly ran into resistance from beef industry representatives such as the American Meat Institute's president, J. Patrick Boyle. Boyle said in a March letter to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer that such a move was "extremely troubling and not supported by science or the law."

After the meeting, which took place in Georgetown in April, some raw beef producers expressed concern that the USDA had already changed its policy by increasing testing of primal cuts, according to public comments submitted by attorney Dennis Johnson.

The resistance has forced the USDA to retreat, at least publicly, and the agency plans to meet later this year to discuss exposing beef carcasses to low levels of radiation as another way to make meat safer.

Tom Pilpott at Gristmill links the problems at Nebraska Beef (which are only the latest in an alarming string of food-safety violations, according to this earlier Washington Post article) to the increasing consolidation of the meat-packing industry:

Now, no one should really be surprised that a company like Nebraska Beef has trouble maintaining food-safety standards on the kill floor. It's merely a large beef packer striving to survive in a field of behemoths.

According to this 2006 list of the nation's top ten beef packers, Nebraska ranked number eight, with a daily slaughter capacity of 2,600 cows. Sound impressive? By contrast, then No. 1 packer Tyson had a capacity of 36,000 cows per day, and No. 2, Cargill, could do in 28,000. Even the then-fifth-biggest packer, Smithfield Beef Group, could take down 8,000 cows per day -- making it more than three times bigger than Nebraska.

But in the last year, the Brazilian meet-packing monstrosity JBS has bought up the Nos. 3, 4, and 5 largest U.S. beef packers. If U.S. government regulators approve those deals -- and there's no indication they won't -- JBS will emerge as the largest U.S. beef packer, with a daily kill capacity of 42,500. It alone will slaughter one in three cows raised in the United States -- and the three largest beef packers will control something like 90 percent of the market.

For a relatively small company to survive among such giants is tough in any business climate. But the recent surge in feed prices has been brutal for the beef-packing industry. With corn prices near all-time highs and cattlemen reducing their herds, packer profits have plunged.

That puts tremendous pressure on packers to keep costs at a minimum. Huge corporate packers like Tyson and Cargill face such pressure, too, but they have the cash to ride out such crises. Relatively small packers like Nebraska don't have that luxury -- and I think that makes them more susceptible to cut corners.

Remember Hallmark/Westland, the California beef packer so spectacularly caught torturing downer cows to force them through the kill line, and into school-cafeteria kitchens? It, too, was a a smallish packer trying to keep a toehold among giants.

So, weâve got economic conditions that make corner-cutting look attractive, and regulators who let the industry halt its efforts to improve safety. Sounds like a recipe for a lot more contaminated meat.


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