It has been 100 years since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a book that brought sweeping changes to America’s slaughterhouses. A century later we celebrate continued improvements in slaughterhouse operations. We must also acknowledge that new risks have emerged, and that the industry must continue to adapt and address those risks.
To put risks in perspective, take E. coli O157:H7, a deadly pathogenic bacterium that is found primarily in cattle herds and was first determined to cause human illness in 1982. 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.
In 1999, an E. coli outbreak traced to hamburgers served at Jack in the Box restaurants sickened more than 600, caused the deaths of four children, and left many with permanent kidney damage. Shortly thereafter, the USDA assigned the meat industry responsibility for providing ground beef that was E. coli-free – in particular, labeling E. coli as a “per se adulterant” in hamburger.
In the last dozen years, progress has been made. A 2005 report released by the CDC, in collaboration with FDA and USDA, showed important declines in foodborne infections due to common bacterial pathogens. Notably, from 1996-2004, the incidence of E. coli infections decreased 42 percent.
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” [The National Provisioner, February 2006]. This article is a call to the meat industry to do even more to prevent E. coli contamination in meat 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.” 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 slaughterhouses still allow contaminated ground beef to enter restaurants and homes across the country. They further concede that the testing done at 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 makes it into ground beef. Interventions such as “[having] several different kill methods — not just repeats of the same intervention in multiple parts of the process flow, … [reducing] the contamination on the cattle we kill, and [improving] 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 for striving to prevent any E. coli from entering the food supply through contaminated meat products.
So, congratulations to the meat industry for making significant improvement to the safety of our nation’s food supply. The advancements you have made are good for the public and good for your business. NP
William Marler is a food-safety advocate, Seattle lawyer and frequent speaker on topics such as, “Why it is a bad idea to poison your customers.”
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