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Beef's Wake-Up Recall

Topps Meat's 21.7 million-pound recall led some safety advocates to question the USDA inspection system, which relies heavily on industry reporting.
Topps Meat's 21.7 million-pound recall led some safety advocates to question the USDA inspection system, which relies heavily on industry reporting. (By Mike Derer/AP)

Then the Topps recall occurred. Raymond called it a "wake-up call."

The recalls have Carol Tucker Foreman, a former assistant secretary of agriculture who is now with the Consumer Federation of America, questioning whether regulators and the industry ever had a handle on O157:H7.

"I had assumed the steps the companies are taking were effective," she said. "Now I don't know if the falloff during the past several years was the result of the steps the industry took or whether we had a period of time where there wasn't much E. coli."

Stan Painter, a USDA inspector and representative of the inspectors' union, said not much has changed since the ConAgra recall.

"We're relying totally on the plant. We're doing very little testing ourselves," Painter said. "We're saying, 'You tell us you have a problem. And if we don't hear from you, we assume you don't have a problem.' "

On Monday, in a report requested by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the USDA inspector general said the agency lacked the data, management controls and technology to identify the plants at greatest risk for contamination. The USDA has not assessed the food safety plans at all processing plants. At 15 facilities, the inspector general found no record that inspectors have been reviewing plant test results at least once a week. In the case of United Food Group, the inspector general said the plant had been cited several times for sanitation problems, but inspectors did not take further action because they had no guidance on how to treat repeat violations. The USDA was supposed to issue such guidance after the ConAgra recall.

Until September, the agency also chose to disregard samples of raw ground beef found to have O157:H7 if the processor agreed to cook it. The reasoning was that because the tainted meat was not being sold raw, it did not pose a public health risk.

But ignoring those samples had some unintended consequences, said Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst with Food and Water Watch. The findings were far less likely to trigger a review of the plant's pathogen control practices and could not be used by USDA officials to identify trends.

"I believe we're seeing the results of that policy now," said Nestor, who called the USDA's methods "voodoo science."

Randall Huffman, vice president for scientific affairs of the beef industry's American Meat Institute Foundation, defended the USDA's sampling methods as accurate.

"The finished product is a reflection of the finished food safety system. Random testing is . . . the best measure of how well food safety works. The arguments that the data was skewed are absolutely false," he said.

USDA scientists, however, were persuaded that their data could use improvement. This fall, the agency said it would begin testing samples even if the meat had been diverted to cooking. The results would be compiled in a separate database.

In November, the agency required all plants to verify that their safety plans were working to contain O157:H7. Next month, it will begin testing imported trim -- the meat left after quality cuts are removed. Its a significant development because processors are increasingly buying trim from suppliers overseas. Canadian trim turned out to be the source of contamination at Topps. For the first time, it will also look at corporate practices to see whether there is a pattern of violations at multiple plants, FSIS spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said. The inspector general is also reviewing the FSIS E. coli testing programs.

Raymond said he welcomed the scrutiny. "Any time you have somebody from outside come in and take a look, it's always helpful," he said. "I didn't come here to supervise recalls. I came to prevent recalls."

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