Last week I spoke at the National Environmental Health Association annual convention. My talk was entitled “What has Changed Since Upton Sinclair? A Contemporary View of Food Safety.” As I told the audience at 7:30 a.m., to put things in context, in 1906 the U.S. population was only 85,450,000 and today it hit 309,388,000. Per capita beef consumption was 71.1 pounds in 1906, today about 60.0 pounds. Things have changed at least a bit.
In January 2007, I wrote in an Op-ed piece “The Jungle Revisited, 100 Years Later,” where I actually agreed in part with the President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute when he said, “Since 1999, the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef samples tested by the Agriculture Department has declined by 80 percent to a fraction of a percent, a level once thought impossible.” In fact, E. coli illnesses, outbreaks and recalls where falling and falling fast. Less than a half decade earlier most of my clients had been sickened by contaminated meat. Between 1993 and 2002 I took over $250 million from the meat industry in verdicts and settlements on behalf of my clients, mostly children with kidney failure caused from consuming E. coli-contaminated hamburger. In the summer of 2003 I expected the normal flood of calls from parents of kid’s stricken with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome–they did not come. They did not come in 2004, 2005 nor in 2006.
What changed from Jack in the Box until 2003? To turn that mess around we needed somebody like Michael Taylor, who was head of The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in the mid-1990s, when undercooked hamburgers from Jack in the Box sickened 650 people and killed four children. In the wake of that epidemic, Taylor stood before the American Meat Institute and announced, “We consider raw ground beef that is contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 to be adulterated within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.” Taylor was warning the industry “things were going to be different and there was going to be accountability.” Things changed. Was it because E. coli O157:H7 was now an adulterant? Was it because of HACCP? Did the Industry step up? I do not know the answers for sure, but for a few years there were fewer recalls or illnesses tied to ground beef. I touted the meat industry as a model of what an industry could do that was right to protect consumers.
But then it changed again. Since April of 2007, 50 million pounds of red meat, mostly ground beef products, has been recalled. To put that in perspective, that is enough red meat to make 200 million hamburgers. E. coli illnesses once on a downturn spiked. Kids were getting sick, seriously sick, again–nearly 100 since April 2007. Topps Meat Company expanded its 300,000-pound recall to include 21 million pounds of ground beef. This recall tops the ConAgra recall of 19 million pounds in 2002 that sickened over forty and killed one and is just under the 25 million pounds recalled by now-bankrupt Hudson Foods in 1997.
And was the governmental response? The then Under Secretary for Food Safety at the USDA/FSIS told us: “our meat supply is the safest in the world.” This when Topps, a company in operation for nearly 70 years, closes its doors and recalls 21 million pounds of ground meat after sickening 30, and Cargill, one of the largest food producers in the U.S., recalls hamburger after sickening 4 children in Minnesota and a dozen others in several states. “The U.S. beef supply is safe?” Tell that to Stephanie Smith.
One would think that with hundreds of Americans poisoned that the Secretary would not be acting as the “cheerleader in chief” for the beef industry, but would be asking one simple question–“What is going on?” I called on Congress to act. I said that it was time for Congress to accept a leadership role and call hearings on “How safe is our meat supply, really?” Hearings need to not only explore the reasons for the past months’ outbreaks, but also to help prevent the next one. Congress must reach out to all facets of the meat industry, from “farm to fork,” to consumers who bear the burden of illnesses, and to academics and regulators to find reasonable, workable solutions to prevent the next meat-related illnesses. More regulation may not help. Testing all products may not be feasible. More funding for the CDC and USDA may not be enough. And, more research at universities may not find all of the answers. But, getting everyone concerned to the same table is a start.
The American Meat Institute’s Patrick Boyle was quoted recently: “We are selling a raw product, however, 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.” I like Patrick. I frankly thought our discussion on Larry King a few months ago was the best part of the show. But, Patrick, since 1994 E. coli O157:H7 has been considered to be an adulterant in hamburger by the government–it is not supposed to be there. What you should be “committed” to is keeping cow shit out of “consumers'” meat.
Where do we go from here? Marler’s Baker’s Dozen:
1. Tattoo on a body part–one that you use every day–FSIS’s Mission Statement: The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.
2. Push for tax credits for workable food safety innovations for small, medium, and large producers and support small and medium sized agriculture by growing local and regional markets for meat.
3. Meet with all major purchasers of meat, poultry, and eggs (governments, ‘big box’ stores, fast food chains, and retailers) and develop product specifications that mandate food safety and sustainability at a fair price.
4. Visit victims of foodborne illness outbreaks and bring along key FSIS staffers and industry leaders.
5. Develop uniform cooking, handling, and labeling instructions that actually provide helpful guidance to the public (in contrast, for example, the suggestion to “cook thoroughly”).
6. Enforce a real zero-tolerance policy for E. coli O157:H7, non-O157 Enterohemorrhagic E. coli strains and all other antibiotic resistant bacteria on all meats.
7. Conduct meaningful sampling and surveillance at farms, slaughter facilities, and retail to determine the real prevalence of all pathogens and provide that data to the public.
8. Post all Non-compliance Reports (NR’s), product test results, and other enforcement documents at manufacturing operations online in real-time (like restaurant health inspections are).
9. Create manufacturer quality certifications to aid consumers in making safe choices, and allow companies to capture price premiums for higher quality.
10. Increase food inspections. While domestic production has continued to be a problem, imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors–domestically and abroad.
11. Make better use of our technology to ensure traceability of all food so that when an outbreak occurs authorities can quickly identify the source and limit the spread of the contamination and stop the disruption to the economy.
12. Improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases; First responders–ER physicians and local doctors–need to be encouraged to test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly.
13. Fire any FSIS employee that would believe and/or be quoted as saying anything like: “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”
I am sure there are other ideas and even better ideas–email them to the President’s nomination for Undersecretary for Food Safety: Elisabeth.Hagen@fsis.usda.gov.