It’s not an easy time to be a meat producer. On October 3, 2009, the New York Times ran an exposé focusing on the meat industry, the dangers of E. coli O157:H7 contamination, and the ways in which contaminated ground beef forever changed the life of Minnesota resident Stephanie Smith. Following the article, meat producers faced an onslaught of scrutiny from the American public. Television and internet media outlets spoke out on behalf of consumers, demanding that the meat industry explain how it was going to ensure that the meat sold in our grocery stores was safe to eat. The man charged with answering many of the media’s questions was J. Patrick Boyle, President and CEO of the American Meat Institute (AMI).
Speaking on behalf of his constituents, Mr. Boyle assured consumers that all meat products are safe to eat. In an October 7, 2009 letter to the New York Times editor, Mr. Boyle claimed that the meat industry was doing all it could to make the food supply safer. To this end he stated, “AMI 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.” What’s that? Those pesky bureaucrats in Washington, DC were the ones standing in the way of progress this whole time? Typical!
Following the New York Times letter, Mr. Boyle repeatedly referred to AMI’s apparently failed attempt to petition the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow carcass irradiation. During an October 12, 2009 appearance on Larry King Live, he stated, “five years ago, the American Meat Institute petitioned USDA to allow us to use irradiation on the exterior carcasses. Five years later, the department has yet to commence a rule making to determine if we can utilize that technology.”
With all this talk about AMI’s interest in irradiation and protecting the public, I decided to read Mr. Boyle’s oft-discussed petition (pdf) myself. After securing a copy of the petition, I reached the perhaps not surprising conclusion that Mr. Boyle has been trying to play an old fashioned game of bait and switch with the American public. As it turns out, the petition was not a plea to the federal government to allow carcass irradiation. In fact, as the document points out, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has allowed meat producers to irradiate refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat, meat byproducts, and certain other meat food products since December 1999. (See http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Oa/background/irrad_final.htm). Indeed, to quote the petition, “the question is not whether [irradiation] of the chilled carcasses is consistent with the [USDA] regulations; it is.”
So, if the AMI petition doesn’t argue that the USDA is impairing meat producers’ ability to irradiate their products, what exactly does it argue? Well, again quoting the petition, “the question is whether this low dose, low-penetrating application of [irradiation] to the outermost surface of the carcass needs to appear on the labels of meat derived from the carcasses” (emphasis added). This can’t be though, can it? Why would Mr. Boyle repeatedly cite a petition that states that meat producers are already allowed to irradiate their products and instead focuses on labeling requirements? The answer to that question becomes clear after a quick analysis of the eight page AMI petition.
The petition appears to start clearly enough. The subject line states “Re: Citizens Petition To Recognize the Use of E-Beam on Carcasses as a Processing Aid.” Those last two words, however, indicate the actual purpose of the document. According to FSIS, “processing aids” are defined as:
Substances that are added to a food for their technical or functional effect in the processing but are present in the finished food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food.
That’s all well and good, but what does that have to do with AMI’s objectives regarding irradiation? The answer is fairly simple: the USDA does not require processing aids to be listed on a food product’s ingredients statement. AMI’s apparent goal in submitting the petition was to enable meat producers to irradiate their products without informing consumers. This fact is emphasized later in the petition when AMI directly requests that FSIS “officially recognizes low dose, low-penetration electron beam (e-beam) applied to the surface of chilled beef carcasses as a ‘processing aid’ and accordingly that this process need not be labeled on any products derived from the carcass” (emphasis added).
Why am I making such a big fuss about this? Surely, AMI is allowed to petition FSIS to do anything they want. Add to that the fact that FSIS determines whether a practice is a “processing aid” on a case by case basis, and not only was AMI was clearly within its rights to write the petition, but the petition was, in fact, a necessary component of the administrative action AMI was seeking. That being said, the real issue here is not AMI’s petition. Nor is it FSIS’s rulemaking process. The issue is AMI’s deceptive use of the petition on a national stage.
FSIS waded through a great deal of public scrutiny before establishing the final rule on meat product irradiation in December 1999. The agency received more than 1,100 public comments in response to an earlier proposed version of the rule. The main issue in contention for many concerned citizens was their right to be informed about how the goods they were buying were made. Consumers, they argued, must be free to choose whether the meat they buy is irradiated. To this end, they fought arduously for strict labeling requirements. Under the final rule, irradiated products were required to bear labels that displayed a special logo, as well as a statement such as “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation.” These labeling requirements were a key component of the irradiation rule; without these requirements, the rule would likely not have been approved.
Patrick Boyle’s repeated assertion that FSIS “has yet to commence a rule making to determine if we can utilize [irradiation]” was misleading at best. In the grand scheme of things, an industry spokesperson’s attempt to shift a bit of blame off the backs of the companies he represents is not surprising. What makes Mr. Boyle’s comments interesting, however, is the fact that he’s pointing to a petition that was designed not to protect consumers, but rather to keep consumers uniformed by eliminating certain labeling requirements. And he’s doing this in an attempt to remove some of the onus for Stephanie Smith’s suffering off of the meat industry. We’ve already heard about Mr. Boyle’s misleading use of statistics and about his outlandish claims that E. coli in raw meat is “natural”, so it would seem that this is just another small lie in a series of deceptions. At some point though, if Mr. Boyle continues to follow this path, consumers may decide that the mistruths contained in his arguments are almost as scary as the tainted meat disasters from which he’s been trying to divert the public’s attention.
It’s not an easy time to be a meat producer, indeed.