(2009-10-10) Beef Inspection Flaws
Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling Ground Beef tainted by the virulent strain of E-Coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone... A single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen... Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination... Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E-Coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies... Cargill, whose $116.6 billion in revenues last year made it the country's largest private company, declined requests to interview company officials or visit its facilities... Within weeks of the Cargill outbreak in 2007, USDA officials swept across the country, conducting spot checks at 224 meat plants to assess their efforts to combat E. coli. Although inspectors had been monitoring these plants all along, officials found serious problems at 55 that were failing to follow their own safety plans... Last year, workers sued Greater Omaha, alleging that they were not paid for the time they need to clean contaminants off their knives and other gear before and after their shifts... Cargill's final source was a supplier that turns fatty trimmings into what it calls "fine lean textured beef." The company, BeefProducts Inc., said it bought meat that averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat, including "any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass." It warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia to kill E. coli... An Iowa State University study financed by BeefProducts found that ammonia reduces E. coli to levels that cannot be detected. The Department of Agriculture accepted the research as proof that the treatment was effective and safe. And Cargill told the agency after the outbreak that it had ruled out Beef Products as the possible source of contamination. But federal School Lunch officials found E-Coli in BeefProducts material in 2006 and 2008 and again in August, and stopped it from going to schools, according to Agriculture Department records and interviews... The retail giant Cost Co is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding, a practice it adopted after a New York woman was sickened in 1998 by its hamburger meat, prompting a recall... But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. "TySon will not supply us," Mr. Wilson said. "They don't want us to test."... The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. "They would not sell to us," said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. "If I test and it's positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don't do that."... A recent industry test in which spiked samples of meat were sent to independent laboratories used by food companies found that some missed the E-Coli in as many as 80 percent of the samples.