Contaminated Beef and the FDA
People have been dying from contaminated meat for years. The latest incident seems to have prodded the USDA into making a feeble gesture towards helping consumers figure out how to avoid inadvertently buying problematic meat. In a policy-shift last week, the USDA announced that it will start posting the names of retailers that carry contaminated meat and poultry that's subject to recall. This decision comes many months after the release of the "downer cows being tortured on the way to slaughter" video that led to the recall of hundreds of millions of pounds of beef, and a week or so after the recall of 5.3 million pounds of E-coli contaminated beef that sickened at least 40 people in the Midwest.
In spite of these rather dramatic events and numerous deaths over the years, consumers have had no way of knowing where the tainted beef was sold. And so a steak bought a month ago and put into the freezer before the recall removed bad product from the shelves could well be contaminated, without the consumer's knowledge.
The new rule enforcing disclosure "appears" to be a step in the right direction -- but wait before you go out to have a burger in celebration. Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer apparently doesn't want to go overboard helping consumers. While he admits that people "want to know if they need to be on the lookout for recalled meat and poultry from their local store," he also says that the expanded disclosure will apply only when there's "a reasonable probability of serious health consequences or death for those with weakened immune systems." He did not define what odds would be used to determine a "reasonable probability of death." And if you think that's not vague enough, the American Meat Institute has objected vigorously to the revised regulations, as limited as they are, insisting that they "have the potential to confuse and mislead customers."
It should be noted that the volume of meat recalled in the past decade has been extraordinary:
- 5.3 million pounds of beef, July, 2008
- 143 million pounds of beef in February, 2008, Westland Beef.
- 21.7 million pounds of hamburger, 2007.
- 27 million pounds of sandwich meat, 2002 (seven deaths).
- 18.6 million pounds of beef, 2002.
- 35 million pounds of frozen meat, 1999.
That's over a quarter of a billion pounds of beef in ten years -- a staggering amount. And yet, the publicity surrounding these extraordinary meat recalls doesn't come close to the publicity surrounding contaminated produce. Every day for the past month, the tomato/Salmonella story has been front and center. The FDA jumped to its feet in issuing formal announcements warning consumers to steer clear of Romas, red plums, and raw red tomatoes -- and also guiding customers how to determine if their tomatoes might have come from a contaminated source or locale. And since stores typically label where their produce comes from, consumers have had clear guidelines about what to steer clear of. (By the way, the FDA just announced today that tomatoes are not contaminated after all.) Likewise, when the contaminated spinach scare broke a few years ago, the FDA also issued a public warning and the news was specific and splashy.
Compare that scenario to announcements on contaminated beef, and you have to wonder. When it comes to beef contamination, there is rarely any clear guidance in the press about how to identify contaminated product in the grocery store. Look how the recent recall of 5.3 million pounds of ground beef barely made a dent in the July 4th weekend headlines, though 40 people got sick from it. (It should be noted that the Agriculture Department labeled the recall Class I, which carries a high health risk. And 40 people getting sick is just the tip of the iceberg because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that for every reported incident of E. coli, 20 go unreported. It should also be noted that E. coli can cause severe illness and even death in humans. That would seem to qualify as "a reasonable probability of serious health consequences or death for those with weakened immune systems.") And yet, Salmonella and tomatoes still continue to dominate the news.
Clearly, the meat lobby has successfully kept the lid on information about its many faux pas. It will do anything to keep meat on the shelves and the public in the dark -- including issuing blatant double-talk. Witness spokesman Mark Dopp's rationale for resisting expanded disclosure:
"If a consumer sees an early version of a list of businesses that received recalled product, that consumer may conclude that he could not have purchased the product. Three days later, the consumer's local grocery store may appear on the list, but the consumer is unlikely to check the list again and may consume recalled products."
And how would not posting the list at all keep consumers better informed, Mr. Dopp?
One final thought. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year in the US alone, causing about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.