Ag Sec Vilsack on the E. coli Crisis | Civil Eats

Ag Sec Vilsack on the E. coli Crisis

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.

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h/t Bill Marler. Originally published on Beyond Green

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Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. His writing on food politics and the environment has appeared online in Grist, The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Here's an idea: how about banning the "medicine" that lowers the pH of beef cattle's stomachs when they are "finished" on grain that they can't digest? Grass-fed beef have normal stomach pH, which E. coli generally can't survive. Lowering their stomach pH makes it more equal with human stomach acid pH, which means that E. coli can survive in our stomachs, too, except it kills us, unlike cows.

    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's hoping.
  2. Bill McCann
    Thanks for your coments on that great Times article. I have been working as a butcher for about thirty-five years. That seems like a long time from a young persons perspective, but to me it seems like a kind of short run. When I started out, every small town had a slaughter facility, and most cities had several. I started in one of those small facilities. We all knew the ranchers who raised the livestock that we processed, and then, as now there was ocasionally some questionable product that we handled. The difference now is one of crazy scale. In 1971 The small crew that I worked with processed about thirty beef and sixty or so hogs in a week. Those numbers are handled in less than an hour in these big plants in the Midwest. Things were not always right back in the day, but the scale was in keeping with responsible consumption of resorces. We have just lost our bearings with this quest for cheap food. The old adage about how we get what we pay for is sure true with this whole mess. Thanks again, but cut our new Ag Sec. a little slack. At least he didn't go off on a rant about our fabulous industrial food industry. In my day I have seen much worse.
  3. sally oakley
    it's all smoke and mirrors. no matter what they say, it will still be business as usual. i'm curious how this will affect the food safety bill sitting in the senate, waiting for "debate" and mark-up? maybe this is a good thing to come to light at this time.
  4. A major (if not THE major) cause of E.coli is that the cattle are on a grain (corn) based diet. Feedlot grain makes the animals more acidic, which in turn makes the E. coli more acid-resistant so that the acids in our stomachs can’t combat the E.coli bacteria. If you want to have safer meat, you need to eat grassfed meat. I write a blog about this ( and started a kosher, grass-fed meat business (

    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.

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