As I write this, the meat-processing industry is in full defensive mode, responding to a recent New York Times article that shows the flaws in the food-safety system. The paper covered the aftermath of a debilitating illness caused by eating anE. coli-tainted hamburger in 2007, and how that meat was able to make it to the consumers. Naturally, changes have been made to the system since, and the USDA and industry associations have been quick to point that out. Every time some sort of food-related safety issue comes up, the industry is quick to point out the United States has the safest food supply in the world.

Now that the spotlight is on the meat industry again, let’s make the best of it. Let’s use this opportunity to get the USDA and FSIS to take E. coli seriously and not just give it lip service. I’ve sat in on many association conventions and food-safety discussions, and the processors who have spoken up have ideas that could really make a difference.

Let’s get the USDA to put together a campaign letting the public know that your ground beef has to be cooked to 160 degrees. A label on the package of ground beef isn’t enough, obviously. How about some print, radio and television advertising?

Let’s create an environment where the grinders in the country can test the beef they get for E. coli without fear of being blacklisted by their suppliers. The FSIS encourages this additional testing, but I’ve heard too many reports from processors who are afraid of losing their beef supply if they test. With so few large suppliers out there, it’s a definite concern. If the FSIS would require this testing, it would eliminate the fear of reprisal.

Let’s give irradiation serious consideration as a kill step. The processors I’ve talked to want this but are wary of the public perception of irradiated ground beef. I’ve also heard processors tout other types of pasteurization, and I’ve spoken with companies touting E. coli vaccines that can be given to cattle prior to harvesting. There is promising technology out there, and let’s start seeing how and when we can put it into practice.

Most importantly, let’s actually put someone in charge of the FSIS. The agency whose sole responsibility is to improve food safety has been leaderless since Richard Raymond retired more than a year ago. Sure, other officials have been put in place, and the Food Safety Working Group has been formed. What the industry needs is a leader, the definitive person who can hear the ideas that the industry has, consider them and put the right ones into action. Anything less is just throwing more bureaucracy at the problem and doesn’t get us any closer to fixing things.

The meat-processing industry could be revolutionized if given the chance. It’s too great an opportunity to miss.