It has been one hundred years since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a book that brought sweeping changes to America’s slaughterhouses. Those changes, in the form of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, were prompted by the public’s disgust for the filth and dangerous working conditions in which our nation’s meat supply was then being produced. A century later, we should celebrate the continued improvements in slaughterhouse operations. However, as improvements were made, risks have increased.
To put risks in perspective, take E. coli O157:H7 (E. coli), a deadly pathogenic bacterium that was discovered in the early 1980s and found primarily in cattle herds. This pathogen lives in the intestines of cattle, and sickens tens of thousands of people in the United States every year when it enters the food supply through fecal contamination during slaughter. According to the CDC, E. coli is responsible for the deaths of between fifty and one hundred Americans — mostly children and seniors — annually. Of those who survive an acute E. coli infection, thousands are left with permanent medical conditions, which range from irritable bowel syndrome to brain damage and kidney failure.
Shortly after the Jack in the Box hamburger E. coli outbreak of 1993, which sickened over six hundred, caused the deaths of four children and left many with permanent kidney damage, the USDA assigned the meat industry the responsibility for providing hamburger that was E. coli-free — In particular, labeling hamburger with E. coli in it as a “per se adulterant.”
In the last dozen years progress has been made. A report released by the CDC in 2005, in collaboration with the FDA and USDA, showed important declines in foodborne infections due to common bacterial pathogens. From 1996-2004, the incidence of E. coli infections decreased 42 percent. However, tens of thousands of these illnesses still do occur.
Because many thousands are still needlessly sickened, and we are still placing our children at risk, I was pleased when I read a recent article by H. Russell Cross, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Texas A&M University, and Rod Bowling, Senior Vice President, Smithfield Beef Group, titled, “E. coli O157:H7 Still Poses Biggest Risk.” This article is a call to the meat industry to do even more to prevent E. coli contamination in meat in order to protect public safety. As a frequent critic over the years of the meat industry, I felt a note of praise was in order.
Mr. Cross and Mr. Bowling point to the fact that “the meat industry as a whole has made steady reductions in E. coli O157:H7 since the establishment of greater accountability was made on the slaughter floor.” While Mr. Cross and Mr. Bowling give the meat industry a deserving pat on the back for making a significant contribution to reducing the number of illnesses attributed to E. coli contamination in ground beef, the reality is that industry has not yet achieved a goal of zero contamination. The authors candidly admit that even with “zero tolerance,” the best practices in slaughter houses still allow contaminated hamburger into restaurants and homes across the country. They further concede that the testing done at the plants “does not mean that we have no E. coli O157:H7….” That even “in our best plants, we transfer [cattle feces from] the hide to the otherwise sterile carcass surface.”
Mr. Cross and Mr. Bowling persuasively argue for “interventions” to “kill” the pathogen before it is made into ground beef. Interventions such as “hav[ing] several different kill methods — not just repeats of the same intervention in multiple parts of the process flow, . . . reduc[ing] the contamination on the cattle we kill, and improv[ing] the hygienic conditions in which they live.” Because, as they so eloquently state: “Being halfway home in terms of pathogen management still is not a comfort zone.”
I commend the meat industry for taking responsibility to reach zero E. coli contamination as required by the USDA, and therefore prevent any E. coli from entering the food supply through contaminated meat products. So congratulations to the meat industry for making significant improvements to the safety of our nation’s food supply, it is good for the public and good for your business.
William Marler is a food safety advocate, Seattle lawyer and frequent speaker on “Why it is a bad idea to poison your customers.”