Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Would you like a little E. coli with your meatloaf?

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Eat up. (You know, perhaps it’s not really a good idea to have the beef industry run the USDA.)

  One federal inspector calls it the “E. coli loophole.” Another says, “Nobody would buy it if they knew.”

The officials are referring to the little-discussed fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed it acceptable for meat companies to cook and sell meat on which E. coli, a bacterium that can sicken and even kill humans, is found during processing.

The “E. coli loophole” affects millions of pounds of beef each year that tests positive for the presence of E. coli O157:H7, a particularly virulent strain of the bacterium.

The agency allows companies to put this E. coli-positive meat in a special category — “cook only.” Cooking the meat, the USDA and producers say, destroys the bacteria and makes it safe to eat as precooked hamburgers, meat loaf, crumbled taco meat and other products.

But some USDA inspectors say the “cook only” practice means that higher-than-appropriate levels of E. coli are tolerated in packing plants, raising the chance that clean meat will become contaminated. They say the “cook only” practice is part of the reason for this year’s sudden rise in incidents of E. coli contamination.

“All the product that is E. coli positive, they put a ‘cooking only’ tag on it,” said one inspector, who like other federal inspectors interviewed asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs. “They [companies] will test, and everything that’s positive, they slap that label on.”

There is no evidence that “cook only” meat has directly sickened consumers. But some inspectors contend that the practice conceals significantly higher levels of E. coli bacteria in packing plants than the companies admit to. That’s because companies that find E. coli are allowed to shift that meat immediately into “cook only” lines, without reporting it to the USDA.

USDA regularly tests for E. coli in slaughtering plants, but only on meat that packing companies have already deemed free of E. coli, the agency inspectors say. USDA officials say they do not track how much meat is put into “cook only” categories, but interviews with a half-dozen inspectors suggested it is a significant amount.

“The government keeps putting out that we’ve reduced E. coli by 50 percent and all of that,” said an inspector. “And we haven’t done nothing. We’ve just covered it up.”

USDA denied this. In answers to written questions from the Tribune, department officials said USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “collects its own random samples without waiting for test results from the plant.”

Meat industry representatives and the USDA also said there is no risk from beef that is fully cooked, because cooking meat above 160 degrees Fahrenheit kills pathogens such as E. coli. Meat companies also said they have taken significant steps to eliminate E. coli in meat during the slaughtering process, including lactic acid washes of carcasses and steam treatments in which carcasses are heated to kill the bacteria.

Meat found with E. coli, they said, isn’t worth as much.

“If raw ground beef has to go into a ‘cook only’ category, it loses value,” said Randall Huffman, senior vice president for scientific affairs at the American Meat Institute, an industry group. “There’s not as big a market for that.”

Most of the major meatpacking companies offer their own cooked meat products, such as meat loaf, precooked hamburgers and taco meat crumbles. They also sell “cook only” meat to food processing companies.

Some cooked beef products end up in the National School Lunch Program, which is administered by the USDA.

The agency bought 2.8 million pounds of cooked beef in 2006, according to USDA records.

USDA said in a statement that “procurement of ground beef and certain other products for distribution through the National School Lunch Program is governed by additional quality requirements,” such as mandatory microbiological testing.

School lunch programs have increased the use of cooked beef in recent years, especially hamburger patties and taco meat, as a way to prevent E. coli poisoning from undercooked beef, according to Jeannie Sneed, a food service consultant formerly at Iowa State University.

But Sneed said she and most school lunch program managers did not know that the cooked beef they use in school lunches could have come from cattle contaminated with E. coli.

“I did not know that’s a common practice,” she said. “Most people are probably not aware that it occurs. But it probably does not create a great amount of concern because if meat is cooked at a little less than 155 degrees, the E. coli is killed.”

Regarding the safety of cooked beef, USDA said it “does collect and sample some cooked, ready-to-eat products for E. coli O157:H7.”

E. coli can be difficult to detect and prevent. The bacterium lives in intestines of cattle, which tolerate it. It can contaminate meat during the slaughter process if fecal matter comes in contact with the meat portions of a carcass. That can happen in several ways, such as when workers accidentally puncture the digestive tract during removal, or when a cow’s hide, which might carry fecal dust, is taken off.

In humans, E. coli poisoning can cause severe stomach cramps, bloody urine and diarrhea, kidney failure and even death.

The American meat industry is bewildered by this year’s increased findings of E. coli contamination. Theories about the causes range from dry conditions in cattle feedlots, where cattle stand in manure, to changes in feed caused by high corn prices.

Whatever the reason, the result has been sick consumers. The largest recall so far this year involved the Topps Meat Co. of Elizabeth, N.J., which went out of business after it recalled 21.7 million pounds of ground beef due to E. coli contamination. About 40 people fell ill from Topps meat.

More recently, Cargill, the Minneapolis-based grain and foods giant, has recalled nearly 2 million pounds of ground beef due to E. coli concerns. And more than 3 million pounds of General Mills’ Totino’s and Jeno’s pizzas have been recalled because of E. coli in pepperoni.

The inspectors interviewed for this story contended that the E. coli increase is due to the methods used to slaughter cattle, as well as the practice of designating affected meat “cook only.”

That practice means companies can profit from meat that they would otherwise lose. But while the practice is clearly spelled out in USDA regulations, it is not widely publicized. “If you knew this was all E. coli positive, would you buy that product?” asked one inspector. “That’s very hush-hush.”

The U.S. meat industry produced 26.3 billion pounds of beef in 2006, from 33.7 million cattle. Meat companies summarily reject the inspectors’ charges that corners are being cut in preventing E. coli contamination.

Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, one of the nation’s largest beef producers, said his company has developed a special testing program, called Tyson Total N60, to detect E. coli. The program is so effective, Mickelson said, that other companies now use it.

“Tyson tests all raw beef components we know are destined for ground beef production,” Mickelson said, adding that the program provides a 95 percent or greater assurance of finding E. coli.

Mickelson also said USDA inspectors have access to Tyson’s records on its E. coli tests.

Cargill declined to comment for this story. Another large meatpacking firm, Swift Foods Co., did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Some inspectors said that USDA should eliminate the “cook only” category to force companies to work harder to eliminate E. coli or face the prospect of destroying beef that can’t pass inspection.

But the American Meat Institute’s Huffman said that would be a waste of food.

“You’re talking about throwing away a significant volume of product, which to any food safety person, that doesn’t make sense because the product can still be put through a validated cooking process and be made safe,” Huffman said. “A lot of food products right now are cooked.”

USDA performed nearly 11,000 E. coli tests at 1,653 meat plants in 2005, according to the agency’s inspector general. From 2004 through 2006, the agency says, 0.17 percent of ground beef samples tested positive for E. coli.

Inspectors interviewed for this story, however, challenged the suggestion that it’s a small problem. One USDA inspector said a large meatpacking plant where he worked produced a half-million pounds a week of E. coli-positive beef that was tagged “cook only.”

“It’s a smoke screen,” the inspector said. “The agency says, ‘Look at all this testing.’ They [the meat companies] are still producing a half-million pounds a week of E. coli product, and we’re patting them on their back.”

Written by Leisureguy

14 November 2007 at 8:29 am

One Response

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  1. Customers vote with their feet. If people are willing to buy shit (that’s what E.coli is) then let them eat shit. They get what they’re willing to pay for. Frankly, I don’t get it. Just buy a cheap piece of meat and have the butcher grind it for you right then and there. How complicated is that? Of course if you’re always hunting deals and looking for the cheapest stuff…you get what you pay for. Follow the French (and other societies’) example….”Eat better, eat less”.



    14 November 2007 at 2:11 pm

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