Stephanie Smith, the subject of a Pulitzer prize-winning story published by the New York Times after she became severely ill with an E. coli infection from a contaminated hamburger, has reached an undisclosed settlement with Cargill Inc.

That might be good news but the size of the settlement will never be known.  Was it a sizable chunk out of Cargill’s massive bank account or just nuisance money that will cause them little if any pain?

Indeed, it is a significant number, whatever it might be.  Cargill said the terms of the settlement will provide for Smith’s care throughout her life, a 23 year old dance instructor left paralyzed, with cognitive problems and kidney damage.  With the high cost of health care under normal circumstances plus many more years of life for the young woman, the dollars will mount quickly.

In an Associated Press interview, Bill Marler, her attorney and publisher of Food Safety News, said, “Stephanie’s tragedy has taken on a life of its own, and hopefully it will continue to focus people on why food safety is so important.”

Cargill acknowledged responsibility when it first learned of her injuries but declined to accept financial responsibility.  The company has been providing financial help to her and her family and said it “deeply regrets” her injuries while claiming it has invested more than $1 billion in meat science research and new food safety technologies.

The company does have an interesting track record in chasing the elusive food safety goal.  Here is how the company web site explains it:

Food safety involves continuous improvement and Cargill innovations have helped food safety.

“Through significant investments in science and innovation, Cargill is working to eliminate E. coli and other naturally occurring pathogens that can lead to food-borne illnesses. Many cattle carry E. coli 0157:H7, which does not affect animal health. In the United States, Cargill has joined Epitopix and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association on a cattle vaccine project, which is aimed at reducing E. coli in cattle before they reach Cargill processing plants. Cargill is working with about a dozen feedlots near our packing plant in Ft. Morgan, Colorado as part of a study in which approximately 100,000 cattle will be vaccinated twice at the feedlots and tested for E. coli O157:H7 at several points at the plant. The data will then be compared on a day-by-day basis with cattle that were not vaccinated.

“We co-developed steam pasteurization to reduce E. coli in the meat industry in the 1990s. We shared this innovation with the industry, rather than keep it secret for our own competitive advantage. More recently, we adopted lactic acid washes, steam vacuuming and UV scans in our meat facilities. We also introduced a hide-on carcass wash.”

The New York Times story traced the beef trimmings that went into her hamburger to four different plants in the U.S. and Uruguay.  Beef trimmings are vulnerable to contamination but large companies including Cargill do not normally test them prior to grinding.  Neither do they customarily test product sold to smaller plants.  Small plants that grind are held to much stricter policies and most now try to protect their business with a rigorous testing regimen.  Testing incoming product, though, was a step that large processors long refused to allow small plants to do under the threat of being blackballed.

In effect, the big guys were saying, “Trust our product, but don’t you dare verify.”  

Solving the Problem

The free ride given large plants is still a black hole that hasn’t been fully addressed since John Munsell was running a small grinding operation in Montana in 2002, a generation ago in food safety years.  His business was hit with repeated and ultimately fatal blows delivered by FSIS when E. coli was discovered on his ground beef product.  He urged inspectors to go after the source–he bought his beef from ConAgra, one of the largest meat packers in North America–but FSIS removed inspectors from his plant, effectively shutting him down.

In a recent interview conducted 8 years after his ordeal, Munsell made these points:

“Think about it: if the agency were to successfully trace back to the source slaughterhouse of origin of enteric bacteria like E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella, numerous embarrassing facts would be revealed.

“1. The behemoth slaughter plants continue to ship unsafe meat into commerce.

“2. FSIS is asleep at the wheel at the large slaughter plants, by intentional agency design, providing a “comfortable” agency non-presence.

“3. HACCP has been an unmitigated disaster, with a foundation in political science and science fiction, not pure science.

“The only way FSIS will conduct timely trace backs to the source slaughterhouses will be via legislative mandates, not by willing agency decisions.”

Standing on the other side of the argument, Scott Goltry, the American Meat Institute’s Vice President of Food Safety and Inspection Services, thinks the procedures now in place are perfectly adequate to deliver a safe product to the public.  Speaking for the trade association, he has encouraged FSIS to support the control of product pending lab analysis, better known as test and hold. In other words, check a sample in and don’t ship the batch out until the sample is ‘lab proven’ to be safe.

There is a big hole in their position on food safety, though.  AMI has recommended that the USDA review ground beef production practices and sample ground beef products that are routinely produced by the processing facility. A processor grinding a primal or producing a coarse ground product not routinely used to produce ground beef doesn’t have to comply.  The catch is the phrase “routinely used.”  

Bernard Shire, writing for Meat&Poultry magazine, said “…it’s no secret that the people who grind trim into ground beef have no real effective interventions at that stage of the process.”

Shire pointed out that “large numbers of ground beef producers have stopped making the product and switched to other types of beef processing and manufacturing, including making cooked products.  Why?  For many of them, being able to sleep at night beats lying in bed awake, wondering when their first or next E. coli positive test will happen.”

He’s echoing Mike Mina, an FSIS official during the infamous Hudson Beef recalls in 1997 who said in a presentation to a room full of grinders at a National Meat Association Conference shortly afterwards, “There are two types of businesses; those that have had a recall and those that will have a recall.”

And in the 13 years following that massive recall, things haven’t changed.  Mina’s comment is still uncomfortably true.

The modern food safety process can be likened to a very fine meshed sieve designed to catch the vast majority of contaminated meat, statistically speaking.  “Routinely used” creates an unnecessarily large hole in that sieve.  

The Bottom Line

The cost of food safety to the industry can easily be measured in the billions of dollars and that just covers research and development into the science behind it.  The cost of in-court and out-of-court settlements to satisfy foodborne illness claims will never be known.  Too many people in the industry still seem to interpret the price paid for foodborne illne
sses as merely the cost of doing business, overlooking the larger and unrecordable cost of human misery.  Just ask Stephanie Smith.