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If Oil Spills, Shuttle Failures Were Investigated Like E. Coli

If USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) had been assigned the responsibility to investigate last years’ oil spill in the Gulf, and provide solutions, the agency would have concluded:

1.) Louisiana, Mississippi, and other states are responsible for the environmental degradation because they allowed contaminants to enter their boundaries.

2.) Petroleum is a contaminant only when it arrives at the destination, namely, the coastlines.  Prior to its arrival, petroleum is a relatively harmless minor irritant.

3.) Louisiana, Mississippi and other states must implement corrective actions to prevent future recurrences.

4.) BP is not liable for this impending catastrophe, because (a) BP is producing a legal commodity, and (b) all liability for this catastrophe must be assumed by the destination states.

Any sensible person would discredit the four statements above, properly classifying them as inane science fiction absurdities. I fully agree. However, USDA/FSIS uses these precise claims when the agency investigates foodborne outbreaks caused by E. coli 0157:H7.

First of all, downstream establishments which unwittingly purchase USDA Inspected and Passed meat products which were previously contaminated with pathogens are held liable by FSIS for the presence of the lethal bacteria. Admittedly, this is absurd. Nonetheless, FSIS operates under this mindset. 

 

Secondly, FSIS claims that E. coli is an adulterant only when found in boneless trimmings and ground beef.  Previously, when the bacteria were detected on carcasses and on intact cuts of meat, FSIS considers the pathogen to be a relatively harmless contaminant, certainly not a lethal adulterant.

Thirdly, FSIS assigns primary responsibility to downstream further processing plants, retail meat markets, restaurants and institutions to prevent their future receipt of meat which was previously contaminated with INVISIBLE bacteria.  

How is this impossible task to be accomplished?  FSIS states that the destination facilities must author more thorough purchase specifications, test incoming meat (at their own expense), hire 3rd party auditors to monitor their source slaughter suppliers’ adherence to food safety practices, demand Certificates of Analysis, ad infinitum.  

In other words, if the destination facilities would merely fill their files to overflowing with a plethora of paperwork (much of which has no connection to safe food), then their source slaughter providers would supposedly never again produce unsafe meat … in theory.

In stark contrast, if FSIS would adequately inspect the source originating slaughter plants, and require the source slaughter plants to prove that fecal bacteria is not present on their carcasses, then the victimized downstream DESTINATIONS of previously contaminated meat would not be required to employ this feckless after-the-fact paper chase.  

The current method of meat non-inspection at the large slaughter plants, called HACCP, has allowed FSIS to semi-retire at the source originating slaughter plants,  effectively deregulating these transnational behemoths, while empowering the agency to hyper-regulate the small, downstream destination facilities, a much easier prey.

When FSIS fully succeeds in its goal of removing federal inspection from all small plants, but outbreaks and recalls continue unabated, who will FSIS then blame?  For starters:  Louisiana and Mississippi.  Or better yet, allegedly negligent consumers who don’t fully cook raw meat, or fail to remove petroleum from their seafood.

The shuttle disaster is another case in point. On February 1, 2003, when the shuttle re-entered earth’s atmosphere and broke apart, toxic debris was showered over several east Texas counties, setting off an intensive NASA investigation to determine the true cause of the catastrophe. 

 If NASA investigators had been restricted to utilize only those investigative protocol allowed by FSIS during investigations, NASA would have concluded that the disaster was caused by inadequate air quality control standards enacted by these east Texas counties.  Furthermore, NASA would have required those counties to implement corrective actions to prevent future recurrences of their reception of toxic debris in the future.  Absurd?  Yes … just like FSIS meat inspection policies.

On July 1, 2011, an Exxon crude oil pipeline ruptured under the Yellowstone River near Laurel, MT, disgorging an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the swollen river.  During the ensuing investigation, no one suggested that downstream municipalities be responsible to implement corrective actions to prevent future pipeline ruptures.  The upstream pipeline owner must be held accountable.  

Likewise, the upstream source slaughter plant must be held fully liable for all bacteria residing on beef carcasses in their coolers, as well as on the variety of meat cuts subsequently produced from these carcasses and shipped downstream.  FSIS disagrees with me on this issue. 

The agency’s current goal of requiring meat plants to “validate” the effectiveness of their meat production HACCP Plans provides a window into agency motives. In a nutshell, FSIS is suggesting that downstream further processing and grinding plants test incoming meat (purchased from source slaughter providers) for the presence of pathogens.  

As such, the agency expects these downstream plants to validate the efficacy of their source slaughter providers’ ability to ship safe meat into commerce. The fact that the incoming meat arrives in boxes emblazoned with the official USDA Mark of Inspection which states “USDA Inspected & Passed,” and that FSIS nevertheless wants downstream plants to test incoming meat, reveals that the agency knows its official mark to be valueless.  

Until USDA/FSIS voluntarily embraces the need for unrestricted tracebacks to the source, and aggressively forces the source to clean up its act, outbreaks and recalls will continue to persist in America. We deserve better.

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John Munsell now oversees the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, FARE, in Miles City, MT. “Force the Source.” His website is www.johnmunsell.com

Photo Credit: NOAA

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