This excellent NYT demonstrates the failure of the beef
industry and its governmental regulators to protect consumers from E. coli.
Contamination is possible every step of the way, and the industry is not only
not doing enough to prevent it, but is actively contributing to its spread by
ignoring its own regulations and requiring retailers not to test beef before it
is grinded and sold. The reason? Increased profit margin, of course.
Terribly, lobbying pressure from
producers has caused the USDA to allow suppliers to run their own E. coli
checks, despite suggestions that processors also test for the bacteria. An
administrator with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said that the
department could well compel the industry to test its meat, but they have to
look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health. The actual quote (from page 3 of the article,
In August 2008, the U.S.D.A.
issued a draft guideline again urging, but not ordering, processors to test
ingredients before grinding. “Optimally, every production lot should be sampled
and tested before leaving the supplier and again before use at the receiver,”
the draft guideline said.
But the department received
critical comments on the guideline, which has not been made official. Industry
officials said that the cost of testing could unfairly burden small processors
and that slaughterhouses already test. In an October 2008 letter to the
department, the American Association of Meat Processors said the proposed
guideline departed from U.S.D.A.’s strategy of allowing companies to devise
their own safety programs, “thus returning to more of the agency’s ‘command and
Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an
assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection
Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to
consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the
entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said.
The article puts a face on one of the many victims of a lack of solid oversight. Stephanie Smith, formerly a children’s dance instructor, will never dance again. She’ll probably never walk again either, thanks to a virulent strain of E. coli that polluted a hamburger she consumed in 2007. The E. coli ravaged her system, leaving her in a coma for nine weeks, then paralyzed her from the waist down with kidneys that barely function.