In the wake of the devastating New York Times piece on E. coli in ground beef, USDA Chief put out a statement yesterday evening:
“The story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic. We all know we can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend’s paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7. Over the last eight months since President Obama took office, USDA has been aggressive in its efforts to improve food safety, and has been an active partner in establishing and contributing to President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group.
Bah, humbug. What’s your plan, Tom?
- Launched an initiative to cut down E. Coli contamination (including in particular contamination from E. Coli O157:H7) and as part of that initiative, stepped-up meat facility inspections involving greater use of sampling to monitor the products going into ground beef.
- Appointed a chief medical officer within USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service to reaffirm its role as a public health agency.
- Issued draft guidelines for industry to further reduce the risk of O157 contamination.
- Started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issuing new instructions to our employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses.
- Designed the Public Health Information System (PHIS) in response to lessons learned in past outbreaks.
“USDA is also looking at ways to enhance traceback methods and will initiate a rulemaking in the near future to require all grinders, including establishments and retail stores, to keep accurate records of the sources of each lot of ground beef.”
Double “Bah, humbug.” As I said on Twitter just now, this is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic sort of stuff. As long as the industry is able to set the terms of its own regulations and do things like maintain bizarro “trade secrets” protections on key elements of our food safety system (not to mention base their business on corn rather than grass), real reform is impossible. Back to the drawing board, Tom.
Another option? Reforming CAFOs so that E. coli can't proliferate as easily through the absolutely filthy conditions from the stockyards to the slaughterhouses to the ground beef that killed that young woman.
Of course, Big Beef would complain, so the USDA will continue to make platitudes. Maybe public outcry will force their hand toward more oversight. Maybe.
Here is a study by Cornell University about this very issue:
Russell, J. B., F. Diez-Gonzalez, and G. N. Jarvis. “Potential Effect of Cattle Diets on the Transmission of Pathogenic Escherichia Coli to Humans” Microbes Infect 2, no. 1 (2000): 45-53.