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Is There an E. coli Problem with Beef Imports?

According to U.S. Customs, in 2007 the United States imported 3.048 billion pounds of beef or 10.7 percent of the overall beef consumption for the year. That amount was slightly lower than in 2006 and about 500 million pounds less than in 2005 and 2004.

According to the latest Department of Agriculture WASDE report, total beef imports were expected to increase by 7.3 percent in 2009 compared with 2008 levels, but still be as much as 12.2 percent lower than what they were in 2007.

I assume, but need to confirm, that much of the imports are trim, which is added into our hamburgers:

entriesofimportedbeef2.jpg

I have not been able to yet find the 2010 import data.  Here is some direct data from USDA on imports – see, USDA – Cattle and Beef Imports:

U.S. cattle imports from all sources:

•2007: 2.495 million head

•2008: 2.284 million head

•2009: 2.002 million head

Beef and veal imports from all sources (carcass weight):

•2007: 3.052 billion pounds

•2008: 2.538 billion pounds

•2009: 2.627 billion pounds

I did, however, find data from FSIS on E. coli O157:H7 testing on both domestic and imported products.  Call me crazy, but it looks like imports are having an ongoing and sustained problem:

The data provided by FSIS shows a dramatically larger percentage of imported raw ground beef (RGB) and raw ground beef components (RGBC) testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 than domestically produced meat.  As seen in the graph, US producers have far lower percentages of meat testing positive for E. coli O157:H7, despite the large number of tests performed. FSIS performs testing on random samples of imported raw ground beef and components for E. coli O157:H7 upon entry to the U.S.

The number of test over the past three years has varied greatly with only 38 and 29 tests on RGB in 2008 and 2010, and 101 tests on RGB in 2009. The small number of tests compared to domestic beef denotes the perhaps relatively small quantity of beef entering the U.S. ground, but the high percentage of contamination is still worrisome. The 2010 increase in percentage foreign RGBC contamination stands in contrast to the domestic reductions. This is especially dangerous and the imported RGBC become mixed with the domestic supply, undermining the security measures in place.

Sources:

http://www.ers.usda.gov/news/BSECoverage.htm

http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Science/Ecoli_Raw_Beef_Testing_Data_YTD/index.asp

Honestly, I have not been known for my love of the United States beef industry.  But even here I may question what we are doing on imported beef products.  Questions remain – why are imported products allowed to have such high E. coli O157:H7 content?  Does it have something to do with the need of United States manufacturers for trim?  Does it have anything to do with the multi-national make up of beef manufacturers or beef customers or both? However you look at it, beef production in this country is big business, very big business – see, USDA – U.S. Cattle and Beef Industry, 2007-2009:

•Retail equivalent value of U.S. beef industry:

2007: $74 billion

2008: $76 billion

2009: $73 billion

•Total U.S. beef consumption:

2007: 28.1 billion pounds

2008: 27.3 billion pounds

2009: 26.9 billion pounds

•U.S. beef production (commercial carcass weight):

2007: 26.42 billion pounds

2008: 26.56 billion pounds

2009: 26.07 billion pounds

•U.S. beef exports (commercial carcass weight and value):

2007: 1.433 billion pounds, $2.186 billion

2008: 1.887 billion pounds, $2.972 billion

2009: 1.868 billion pounds, $2.828 billion

——–

This opinion piece first appeared on Dec. 8, 2010 on Marler Blog.  Go there to see comments already posted.

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Raymond

    To add to your numbers, and to hopefully decrease your anxiety, I will supplement your report with the following:
    The three years of high percentage positives for imported Ground Beef include one positive in 2008, three positives in 2009 and one positive in 2010. The three positives in 2009 included two on the same day from Mexico, so this is some kind of an aberrancy. The increased numbers of tests for 2009 are reflective of increased testing because of the positives.
    The 0.6% rate for imported raw ground beef components reflects on just three positives out of 496 samples, not 2,524 as the graph indicated. The number of tests for components are switched for domestic and imported on the graph. Imported components have had three positives each of the last three years. If all tests in Dec are negative, the 0.6 % will drop.
    The real story here that needs highlighted is not the slight rise in percent of positive tests for imports, but the dramatic drop for domestic positives in raw round beef components from 1.0 % to 0.4%.

  • kim

    So I am wondering if the beef is imported as a whole cow then get slaughtered here in America or imported as hamburger already, and why are we importing beef anyway? Don’t we have enough producers?

  • doc raymond

    We import some beef on the hoof from neighbors like Canada, but much of the imports are trim from countries that don’t consume much ground beef and we can buy it cheap. It also contains more actual red meat as some countries prefer smaller steaks without much fat. so the trimming process removes meat also. Our processors need this trim to make the lean ground beef many of us prefer.