More Meat Industry Dissembling on E. coli

On October 3, 2009, the New York Times published a lengthy and compelling story about Stephanie Smith and the E. coli O157:H7 infection, and resulting permanent injuries, that she suffered as a result of eating a tainted hamburger patty–specifically, one from a box of  “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties” that had been purchased at a local Wal-Mart store.  See, Michael Moss, E. coli Path Shows Flaws in Meat Inspection, New York Times, at A 1.  These patties had been manufactured for Wal-Mart by the food giant Cargill, using, according to the story:

a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

The story also notes that “[u]sing a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.”  And so–surprise, surprise–the increased safety risk posed by such ingredients was motivated purely by cost-concerns, which is to say, profit-motives.

Not surprisingly, the meat industry was not pleased with the bad publicity generated by a front-page New York Times article that detailed the less-than-savory facts about how ground beef is manufactured today, and the significant public health risks that are created as a result.  To counteract this bad publicity, J. Patrick Boyle, President and CEO of the American Meat Institute (AMI), sent a letter to the editor, with the title, The Safety of Beef: The Meat Industry Responds.  The letter is worth quoting in its entirety.

The meat industry has made great strides in improving the safety of our products: according to the Department of Agriculture, despite changes in the government’s program that have made E. coli testing much more sensitive, the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef declined 45 percent since 2000 and now occurs at a rate of less than one half of 1 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli O157:H7 infections in people have decreased by 44 percent since 2000.

The American Meat Institute and its members have worked aggressively to develop new technologies and processes to enhance meat and poultry safety. Using them requires prior approval by the Department of Agriculture.

For example, A.M.I. submitted a petition five years ago to use carcass irradiation — a process to reduce or eliminate pathogens like E. coli — but we are still waiting for the department to initiate a rulemaking on its efficacy.

The meat industry has a single-mindedness when it comes to E. coli O157:H7 — we want to eliminate it. But like other facts of nature — from floods to the flu — even when there is a will, there may not always be a way to do it 100 percent of the time. Be assured that the industry will not stop trying.

So do you feel assured?  I certainly do not–and here’s why.
The statistics that Mr. Boyle so casually tosses around as proof of the great job that the USDA and the meat industry is doing are misleading at best, and a blatant sleight-of-hand at worst.  Note how the date of so-called decline in the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef and of infections uses the year 2000 as its starting point.  This is significant, because the biggest decreases in the incidence-rates occurred in 2002 and 2003, a fact that Mr. Boyle utterly fails to mention.  Indeed, he also fails to mention that the incidence of ground beef in 2008 almost DOUBLED in 2008.  Here is what the most recent CDC study states:

Despite numerous activities aimed at preventing foodborne human infections, including the initiation of new control measures after the identification of new vehicles of transmission (e.g., peanut butter-containing products), progress toward the national health objectives has plateaued, suggesting that fundamental problems with bacterial and parasitic contamination are not being resolved. Although significant declines in the incidence of certain pathogens have occurred since establishment of FoodNet, these all occurred before 2004….The lack of recent progress toward the national health objective targets and the occurrence of large multistate outbreaks point to gaps in the current food safety system and the need to continue to develop and evaluate food safety practices as food moves from the farm to the table.

Efforts to reduce contamination of meat, poultry, produce, and other foods are ongoing….[T]he percentage of ground beef samples yielding STEC O157 increased from 0.24% in 2007 to 0.47% in 2008; whether the increase was related to focused sampling of higher risk facilities or improved laboratory detection, or whether the microbial load was actually higher, is unknown.

See Preliminary FoodNet Data on the Incidence of Infection With Pathogens Transmitted Commonly Through Food–10 States, 2008, 301 JAMA, 2088-2090 (2009) (emphases added), (For the raw date on which these O157-incidence rates are based, see USDA, Testing of raw ground beef and raw ground beef component samples for E. coli O157:H7: year-to-date totals can be found at the FSIS website.
So like the so-called Wizard of Oz who told Dorothy and her compatriots to “ignore the man behind the curtain,” Mr. Boyle asks the American public to ignore the fact that meat safety has been getting significantly worse since 2004.  Less obviously, he also asks us to believe that the decreases that occurred early in the decade were both real, and primarily attributable to USDA and industry efforts.  But if you believe that, then I have a bridge in New York that I would love to sell you.

After analyzing five years of data from 1998 to 2005, the CDC concluded in a published study that: “Despite regulatory efforts to improve the safety of the U.S. food supply, E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks remain common.  Ground beef remains the most frequently identified vehicle.” Josefa M. Rangel, et al., Epidemiology of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Outbreaks, United States, 1982-2002, 11 Emerging Infect. Dis. (No. 4) 603, 606 (April 2005).  But notwithstanding this utterly-fact-based and non-biased conclusion, having come from the CDC, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service for several years attempted to paint a much rosier picture, one especially designed to make the meat industry and the agency look as good as possible.  The only problem was that the USDA was offering up a sleight of hand nearly as egregious as the one performed by Mr. Boyle in his letter to the editor on behalf of the meat industry.
A study published by USDA agency personnel in 2005 is a perfect example of the self-serving data-analysis that is relied upon to make it appear that FSIS-implemented regulatory changes resulted in a decrease in E. coli O157:H7 infections.  See Alecia Larew Naugle, et al., Food Safety and Inspection Service Regulatory Testing Program for Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Raw Ground Beef, 68 J. Food. Protect. No. 3, 462-68 (2005) (hereinafter FSIS Study).  This study, among other things, claims that a decline in the reported and confirmed E. coli O157:H7 infections from 2002 to 2003 “coincides with the reduction of E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef we report here.” Id. at 465 (emphasis added).  The agency apparently does not recogn

ize the fact that coincides
does not mean causes, and that something that coincides is, in fact, a coincidence, not a cause.  The agency also seems to think that if a “decrease occurred follow[s] specific regulatory changes by FSIS and actions by industry that were implemented with the goal of reducing E. coli O157:H7 adulteration of raw ground beef,” then that this is by itself proof of a cause and effect relationship.  Of course, those of us who studied logic know that one of the biggest logical fallacies that exists is post hoc, ergo propter hoc–after the fact, thus because of the fact. Sorry USDA–it does not work that way.  

In the study, FSIS was also disturbingly untroubled by its own admission that the testing data on which it relied “does not provide an ideal estimate of the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef in the United States.”FSIS Study at 464.  What some might call “less than ideal,” others might call misleading–or perhaps even a “damn lie.”  It should also be note that for over the relevant three year period, from 2000 to 2003, the FSIS collected and tested 19,628 samples from federally inspected establishments, and only 4,389 from retail. Id.  And as FSIS also admits, “the selection of retail outlets was neither completely random nor weighted according to production or sales volume.” But none of that stopped FSIS from claiming that the so-called “decrease” in the rate of positive raw ground beef samples “reflects a real change resulting in measurable public health improvements.” Id. at 467.
Sadly for the USDA, and even more for the public, the touted change was not long-lived (if it lived at all). About two years later, in the wake of several large outbreaks of illness linked to ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, the agency was backtracking fast about its claims of measurable public health improvements attributable to FSIS and industry actions.  Instead, in FSIS Notice 65-07, FSIS stated:

The purpose of this notice is to make inspection program personnel aware of a number of significant developments involving Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli O157:H7) in beef products that occurred since the beginning of the high prevalence season for this pathogen in April. These developments raise questions about the adequacy of the interventions and controls that beef operations (i.e., official establishments that slaughter, fabricate, grind, mechanically tenderize, or enhance by tumbling, massaging, or injecting beef products such as with marinades) are employing to address this pathogen.

*    *     *

Beginning at least with the high prevalence season for E. coli O157:H7 in April 2007, some control measures for E. coli O157:H7 implemented by beef operations have proven to be inadequate. During this period, there has been an increased number of positives in Agency sampling for E. coli O157:H7, compared to the preceding three years, a couple of outbreaks attributed to this pathogen and beef products, and a number of large recalls. This situation requires a broad reassessment of how beef operations and FSIS are assessing this pathogen.

Notice at 1, 2.  And so, among other things, FSIS required all federal establishments to reassess their HACCP plans, and complete a detailed E. coli O157:H7 checklist. And this was just the beginnings of multiple agency responses to a significant surge in not only the prevalence of this pathogen in ground beef, but also on intact cuts of meat, both of which caused significant injury and death in the ensuing years.

Of course, all of this Mr. Boyle ignores when he touts the “great strides” the meat industry has made in improving safety of meat products.  But perhaps his most egregious bit of irrationality is the notably false analogy he trots out at the end of his letter to the editor.  In this, Mr. Boyle calls the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef a “fact of nature,” analogizing this deadly pathogen to “floods [and] the flu.”  By this analogy, Mr. Boyle plainly intends to suggest that the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in or on meat is simply inevitable, and so not the meat industry’s responsibility.  He re-emphasized this point in a press release issued not long after his letter to the editor in which he states: “We are selling a raw product,…and raw products by their nature may contain harmful bacteria. That’s why we are committed to providing consumers the information that they need to handle and cook ground beef safely.”  The public must thus take responsibility for making meat safe to eat, because meat products, “by their nature” can contain E. coli O157:H7.  And so just as it is not the meat industry’s fault when it rains on a day that you forgot to carry your umbrella, it is not the meat industry’s fault if you are infected with E. coli O157:H7 as a result of buying and eating adulterated ground beef. 

Boyle’s patently absurd statement about E. coli O157:H7 being somehow “natural” to raw meat reminds me of something that my Grandmother used to say when teaching me how to cook. She’d say: “Remember–You can’t unsalt the soup.” And just as you can’t unsalt the soup, you can’t reasonably expect to remove “E. coli O157:H7 and other invisible germs” from a carcass once you put it there.  Just like the too-salty soup didn’t appear naturally in the pot that way, deadly pathogens do not naturally occur on meat.  Instead, E. coli O157:H7 contaminates a carcass only when insufficient care is used during the slaughtering process  That is why it is so equally absurd that Boyle bemoans the fact that the USDA has been slow to act on a meat industry petition that seeks agency approval “to use carcass irradiation–a process to eliminate pathogens like E. coli.” So, according to Boyle, the meat industry should be allowed to continue to carelessly contaminate carcasses with feces, but then be allowed to sufficiently zap each carcass with irradiation to kill the pathogens just put there.  Talk about closing the barn doors after the cattle have already left. Or trying to unsalt the soup.   

In the end, the meat industry wants credit when fewer people get sick and die from E. coli O157:H7 infections, but they want none of the responsibility when more do.  According to the meat industry, the public must simply come to accept sickness and death as part of life, something altogether natural, and, in any case, the fault of the public anyway for not cooking the ground beef to a temperature high enough to sterilize it.  I just wonder if Mr. Boyle would like to explain that to Stephanie Smith in person.  I am guessing that he would rather not.