In the eight day period from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day we have seen the worst performance out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) we can remember.

On Christmas Eve, FSIS announced that Oklahoma-based National Steak & Poultry was recalling 248,000 pounds of so-called “non-intact” steaks that were “blade tenderized.”  The beef was connected to illnesses of E. coli O157:H7 in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington.

There it stood over the long Christmas weekend.  No list of restaurants could be obtained from FSIS, CDC, or National Steak.   The long list of steak products with its various codes and letters gave clues because it included items like “Carino’s Boneless” and “Moe’s Beef Steak.”

In the movie “Jaws” the town fathers opt not to warn the public about the mammoth shark because they do not want to ruin the tourist season.  FSIS reportedly began its investigation on Dec. 11, but managed to time the recall when it would get the least attention.

Such timing is suspicious on its face.  Whether FSIS and/or National Steak was motivated by wanting to not impact the holiday business of the various chain restaurants involved, I do not know.

The other possibility–sheer incompetence–is depressing.  From his resume, its does not look like Jerold Mande, the acting Under Secretary for Food Safety, ever previously supervised much more than someone to make copies or get his coffee.

Making FSIS dance probably requires some considerable management skills.

The National Steak recall quickly had another hot aspect to it as we learned food safety advocates had warned the Secretary of Agriculture about how “non-intact” steaks can become contaminated through the tenderization process. Secretary Tom Vilsack never responded to the warning.  (See “USDA Warned of Risky Steak Last June,” Dec. 28, 2009)

At Food Safety News, we began going through those six states to get answers about how many illnesses were involved.   It was the only route to information, as it seemed no one was home at CDC.  State health departments were all doing business as usual.

Just when we’d concluded there were seven people in six states who had become ill with E. coli illnesses after eating steaks associated with the outbreak, CDC weighed in with a short but troubling addition to the official information. 

Sixteen, not six states were involved in the outbreak, and 19 people were sickened.  When did it grow to 16?  “It was always 16,” the CDC spokesman said.

When we asked about anything else, including how the recall announcement went out missing ten states; we were told to talk to FSIS.  It was not talking and we still do not know.

At about the same time, National Steak said the recalled steaks had been primarily distributed to three chain restaurants (Moe’s Southwest Grill, Carino’s Italian Grill, and KRM’s, which operates 54th St. Grills in Kansas City and St. Louis areas). 

Neither FSIS nor CDC has provided any additional information.  There is no list of the ten additional states.  FSIS maintains that no retail outlets are involved even through the last time we checked by every definition restaurants are retail establishments.  (See “Steak Distribution Remains A Mystery,” Dec. 31, 2009)

Instead of providing someone empowered to speak with the media, National Steak provided nothing but an endless loop of recorded messages.

Olive Garden restaurants, which freely told us they had received beef from National, and Moe’s, which remained available, were the only actors in this troubling little drama that remained available.  Testing found no E. coli in the beef sent to either Olive Garden or Moe’s.

So, it has been a frustrating eight days for us.  My guess is that at both CDC and FSIS way too many people were given the same holiday time off that the President was obviously enjoying.  That’s a management problem.

And let’s hope that’s all it is.  It’s too freighting to think that FSIS could really be a wholly owned subsidiary of the American Meat Institute.