Shouldn’t we test for pathogens closer to where the public actually buys their meat and poultry?

In one of his periodic blogs (subscription required). Dr. Richard Raymond made a statement about testing poultry parts for pathogens that is stunning in its simplicity. Politically speaking, though, it’s potentially a 10.0 on the Richter scale.  He wrote, “Deputy Mande wants something that will help ‘government and industry…be held accountable by the public’ and he wants it measured. Great, I say measure what we eat–poultry parts–just like the beef industry must test and measure ground beef, not carcasses. Get poultry testing to the end product and closer to the consumer.  Let’s recognize consumers’ buying habits of the 21st century and ‘measure’ what they buy and eat.”

He was writing about the pair of FSIS/FDA/CDC joint public meetings to hear stakeholders’ thoughts on how to measure progress in food safety.  One was held July 21 in Chicago and the other will be held October 20, 2010, in Portland, Oregon.  His final question: Do I need to go to Portland, or does this count as my presentation?

Dr. Raymond, I think you need to book a flight to the West coast.

Right now, the meat and poultry industry conducts a vigorous program of production site testing.  Processing chicken? Test for Salmonella right then and there–look at the whole bird but don’t worry about its pieces and parts right now.  Grinding beef?  Take a sample immediately and ask a lab for a report on the possible presence of E. coli O157:H7.  The hoped for results of course, are that all the products leaving the point of production are pathogen-free.  It helps get companies like Tyson and JBS off the legal tenterhooks of lawyers like Bill Marler and lets their top management sleep a little better at night.

But Raymond is suggesting that we take a major, way overdue long step and ‘measure what they (the public) buy and eat.’

We don’t do that very well.  Never have.  Probably never will.

The public rarely buys and eats the direct production of a Tyson or a JBS plant.  They buy what Kroger and Wal-Mart puts in the cold case.  Sure, they’ll purchase the occasional tube of ground beef placed straight into the case by a supermarket clerk but the larger purchases are the one- and two-pound re-ground and repackaged product produced in the back room.  And how often do you see a few chicken breasts or a half-dozen legs still in an unopened Tyson package?

If Dr. Raymond wants to accurately measure what the public buys and eats, what he’s really asking is supermarkets be held to the same rigorous standards as Tyson.  It’s something that industry has stoutly resisted for reasons that are short-sighted.  It keeps the legal responsibility out of their pocketbook and firmly in the hands of Tyson, JBS, Cargill, etc.  It does nothing to improve food safety in America.  

Sure it’s an added expense for retailers and it would mean adding qualified personnel at thousands of points of production.  But let’s be honest here.  If we’re all really that interested in presenting a pathogen-free-as-humanly-possible product to the consuming public, checking for pathogens at the point where the product is actually transferred to the consuming public only makes good sense.

But with apologies to Ronald Reagan, “there I go again.”  I’m still trying to link the phrase ‘good sense’ with American politics.

Want a bone-chilling food safety comment?  I asked Dr. Raymond for some final thoughts on the future of testing poultry parts.  “FSIS won’t test parts because the results would show at least 25 percent contamination with no way to reduce that statistic,” he said.  “But they really need to do it to see if dropping the rates on carcasses (a Bush Initiative) has any impact whatsoever and so they and industry can be held accountable with real and pertinent numbers.”