When the New York Times recently reported that Tyson Foods Inc. would not sell beef trimmings to Costco because the retail giant routinely tests for E. coli O157:H7, it should have set off some alarm bells.
Tyson, Cargill, and JBS, –the top three beef producers in the nation– control 80 percent of the U.S. market. The idea that any one of them would prohibit testing after sale to wholesalers is mind-boggling.
So it came as no surprise once the cat was out of the bag that Tyson opted to sell to Costco without restricting it from testing. Costco will be able to test Tyson’s trim before it is mixed with trim from other suppliers.
Costco tests for the pathogen in each shipment of beef trim it accepts before it is ground and combined with beef from other suppliers. Much of the nation’s ground beef comes from such grinding of beef trimmings. Often trimmings come from parts of the cow that are more likely to be tainted with pathogenic bacteria.
As The New York Times demonstrated, most testing occurs only after trimmings from multiple sources are ground into hamburger. At that point, it is next to impossible to know exactly where the contaminated ground beef came from.
The newspaper said Tyson is not alone among beef producers in requiring grinders NOT to test ingredients for E. coli prior to use because they fear being caught up in somebody else’s recall.
A 22-year old dance instructor profiled in The New York Times ate a hamburger in 2007 ground by Cargill Inc. from multiple foreign and domestic sources. She now has kidney and brain injures and remains partially paralyzed since coming out of an induced coma.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) requires ground beef processors to have hazard or safety plans, but only “encourages” Costco-like testing. If the dominating players in the beef industry continue to prohibit testing prior to use as the Times story indicates, FSIS has a big and ongoing problem.
A couple of days after The New York Times investigation, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement promising to “do more to protect the safety of the American people,” pointing to the President’s Food Safety Working Group. The Washington Post, however, pointed out that the Obama Administration has yet to name an Under Secretary for Food Safety.
It is the Under Secretary for Food Safety who runs FSIS.