I am a fan of the meat industry’s efforts to identify and eliminate sources of foodborne illness.  The work done to end the scourge of E. coli O157:H7 alone has tapped the best scientific minds around the world and cost millions of dollars.  Processing plants have reconstructed their production lines, added costly but necessary kill steps, and changed the way the entire distribution system works.  The results have been truly phenomenal; not at 100 percent yet and it never will be, but very close to what it can be.

But the industry’s efforts still have a problem and it’s one of perception.  I’ve often said the science behind what the industry does is sound and trumps the emotional appeals used by anti-meat groups.  Those emotional appeals, unfortunately, often win the day and here’s why:  People eat with their hearts and souls.  When a family member is struck with a foodborne illness and lingers near death, people react to the tragedy with their hearts and souls.  They take no comfort in the fact that only an incredibly small proportion of meals result in illness or premature death.  They take even less comfort in the fact that a number of those deaths and illnesses might have been due to food mishandling on their part.

Case in Point: Back when I was teaching a course on crisis management for the meat industry and using real world incidents as discussion points, one of the people in the class got overly agitated about the public relations fall out caused by the death of a young boy.

“Why should my company have to suffer when it’s clear that the cause was undercooking food in the home?” he exclaimed.

I said, “Would you like to stand up in front of a group of reporters, point to the grieving mother and tell them that it’s all her fault?  That she actually killed her five-year-old?”

A comment like his comes across as cold and unfeeling.  It’s business suicide.  And as Jim Marsden, a well-known and highly respected meat science researcher at Kansas State University said, “‘Just cook it’ isn’t the answer.”

Here is a harsh, non-scientific fact:  Science can only take you so far with the public.  There comes a time when emotion takes the argument.  With all the work the food industry has done to eliminate foodborne illnesses, it’s often seen as lacking in resolve.  The food industry has to appear to take charge of the foodborne illness issue and not be seen as dragging its feet.  The AMI letter sent to USDA Secretary Vilsack sends the wrong emotional message.

The letter says, “Designating non-O157:H7 shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) as adulterants would result in a regulatory program that will do more harm than good.”  

The public will ask, “For whom?  My family or the meat business?”

AMI took the position that “Non-O157:H7 STEC’s in beef products may be a reason for potential public health concern, but it is not a public health emergency.”

The public will say, “For my children, a potential public health concern is a public health emergency.”

The letter outlined 8 specific steps that the USDA should complete before considering STEC’s as adulterants:

1. Focus on Prevention
2. Conduct a Comprehensive Public Health Risk Assessment
3. Validate Analytical Laboratory Test Methods
4. Conduct a Baseline Survey of Non-O157:H7 STECs on Beef Products
5. Measure Progress Based on the Public Health Outcome
6. Expedite Approval of New Microbial Interventions
7. Determine Impact on International Trade
8. Provide an Open and Transparent Public Policy Process

All eight are valid points that need to be addressed as quickly as possible.  Steps #3 and #6 are especially critical.  Even if the USDA were to take an immediate step of declaring STECs to be adulterants, there are no valid tests or preventive technologies available.  If a processor can’t test for STECs and eliminate them when present, the government can’t force the issue.

But I can see it coming already.  Critics will immediately jump on the points made in the letter as just another effort by the meat industry to shirk its responsibility; to make food safety a financial, profit-and-loss decision and take the focus off of it as a serious public health issue.  The AMI hit the science squarely on the head but missed the emotional issue completely.