Back to the Source

Retailers, like consumers, expect the meat they buy to be free of pathogens, and most of it is. But when an outbreak occurs, the ramifications are far-reaching and can linger at the store and elsewhere. All agree that the sooner a pathogen's source is located, the better for all concerned, but current procedures often get stalled midway. The retailer that has sourced the contaminated meat has its

Retailers, like consumers, expect the meat they buy to be free of pathogens, and most of it is. But when an outbreak occurs, the ramifications are far-reaching and can linger — at the store and elsewhere.

All agree that the sooner a pathogen's source is located, the better for all concerned, but current procedures often get stalled midway.

The retailer that has sourced the contaminated meat has its name in the news. Then the “further processor,” which ground the beef and packaged it, is next.

Seldom does traceback to the original source, which is most likely the slaughterhouse, get done quickly, if at all, industry sources told SN.

In the case of ground beef — often suspect in E. coli outbreaks — finding the source of contamination can be particularly daunting, because trim from a huge number of sources could have been ground together at a number of further-processing plants.

“There does seem recently to be more of an effort within FSIS to pinpoint the original source,” said George Puchta, retired officer and 40-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service division.

“At least Dr. [Richard] Raymond, the undersecretary [of agriculture], has been effective in bringing the issue to the forefront,” Puchta said. “Previously, it was thought the problem should be dealt with at the point nearest the consumer. The thrust of that should be changed.”

Puchta and others, particularly small and medium-sized further processors, agree that changes need to be made — both for the good of public health and for the health of the meat industry.

Further processors say they catch the brunt of investigation and paperwork costs when there is a recall. Some involved in recalls have reeled in their businesses to deal only locally, and others, as recall-related costs pile up, have just gone out business.

John Munsell, manager of the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, Miles City, Mont., has written a comprehensive “Traceback Bill” that addresses the sensibility, he says, of tracing E. coli and salmonella to the slaughterhouse.

“Close inspection of E. coli recalls this century and visits with the impacted plant owners quickly reveal that FSIS forcibly lambastes small, downstream, non-slaughter destination plants, which have unwittingly purchased previously contaminated meat,” Munsell said.

He contends that inspectors often fail to correct problems at the slaughterhouse level, even at plants that have recurring problems with E. coli positive test results.

Munsell said the recent FSIS ruling to list retailers involved in Class I recalls should whet retailers' appetite for quicker traceback to the pathogen's origin.

Traceback all the way to the slaughterhouse would take the responsibility, or perception of responsibility, away from the retailer and the further processor, and put it on the slaughterhouse, he said.

“Since the true source of contamination is not identified and required to implement corrective actions, recurring outbreaks and recalls are virtually guaranteed,” Munsell has told Montana's U.S. congressional delegation. Munsell stressed that both E. coli and salmonella are enteric, or intestinal, pathogens, and thus logically are found at the point of slaughter.

“I was in the meat business for 31 years and I didn't know that salmonella and E. coli were enteric bacteria, so I'm sure there are others down the supply line who don't know that either,” Munsell said.

Former FSIS official Puchta agreed.

“The logical step is to trace it to the kill floor,” Puchta said. “The USDA needs to get more involved, particularly at the point where the animal is turned into beef.”

Puchta acknowledged that slaughterhouses have added technology and more intervention, but he also said lack of transparency is a problem.

“I know interventions have been stepped up and conditions are better than they used to be, but I think the meat industry and the USDA are guilty of not pushing for more transparency.”

Indeed, another source said that inspection reports, at least non-compliance reports, from slaughterhouses can be obtained only via the Freedom of Information Act.

While different segments of the meat industry have their own ideas about what should be done to make meat safer for consumption, and to alert consumers more quickly when there is a recall, most agree that changes are needed.

“Somebody needs to draw a road map to get the things done that would be good for public health, whatever it involves,” Puchta said.

When it comes to E. coli, cooking to 160 degrees F. will kill the bacteria. For that reason, there are people who would lay the entire responsibility for E. coli-related illnesses at the feet of consumers who prefer their hamburgers rare.

Most industry people, however, agree that the public is not being adequately educated on safe food handling and cooking.

Especially because the deadly strain of E. coli associated with meat recalls can never be completely eliminated — not even with irradiation, experts say — consumers should be made aware of how to avoid the bacteria.

Some say a USDA/FSIS-developed, consumer-directed food safety education program, with attention-getting public service ads on television and radio, would be a valuable step.

“At one time, when I was at FSIS, there was a lot of talk about an extensive consumer education program involving school health classes and other things, but it never got done. It could be done on public service TV [announcements]. The ads warning about smoking get your attention. We could do something like that,” Puchta said.

Jay Wenther, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, Elizabethtown, Pa., seconded that thought.

“I've been forced to look at so many ads about all television going digital that I've got [the message] by now,” Wenther said. “USDA could educate the public in the same way on safe food handling, proper cooking temperatures, the dangers of cross-contamination. We've been asking for that.”

Wenther also commented on tracing E. coli back to the source.

“It's not logical to stop with the further processor. His biggest problem is he bought beef already contaminated,” Wenther said. “If I were a retailer, I'd want to know the source of the pathogen.”

In the recent case that involved an E. coli outbreak linked to beef sold at Kroger, which was sourced from Nebraska Beef, the traceback went pretty quickly, Wenther pointed out.

“I believe this is one of the first times the public has known the source of the contamination so quickly.”

When the process slogs through several days, even weeks, as often happens, there can be worsening consequences — more illnesses and lost sales for the retailer. Once a consumer sees the name of his local supermarket roll across his television screen, he just may decide to do this week's shopping — and next week's — somewhere else.

Meanwhile, the FSIS announced last month that retailers who have had a recalled product in their stores will now be listed on the agency's website. FSIS spokeswoman Amanda Eamich confirmed last week that that is a final ruling.

Most trade groups, including Food Marketing Institute, which represents retailers, took issue with that ruling.

“We still want consumers to focus on the product, not where they bought it,” said Jill Hollingsworth, FMI's senior vice president, food safety programs.

“Just because a store is or is not on the FSIS list is not enough information. We don't want to discourage consumers from doing what they're already doing.”

In a statement issued the same day USDA/FSIS made the announcement about listing retailers, FMI said, “The most important product recall information for consumers is a detailed description of the food that may be unsafe to eat, including the brand, the size, the lot code, the expiration date, what the product looks like and where to find the information on the package. Government, food industry, news media and others must communicate this information as quickly and completely as possible to protect the public.”

On traceback, Hollingsworth agreed that USDA/FSIS is doing a better job of getting to the source of contamination quicker, but she said traceability should be made easier and faster.

“Traceability should work both ways, backward or forward on the food chain,” Hollingsworth said. “You want to be able to focus in on one meat product [and find] where problems may have occurred.”

Ideally, she said a single code on an apple or a package of ground beef could be scanned at the retailer and it would give all the information that anyone would need to trace the item back to its source.

“That's our ultimate goal.”

Hollingsworth said FMI and others are working to develop a universal traceability system.

In fact, FMI has formed a produce traceback task force.

“Our position is to work with the government. We're at the end of the supply chain, but we believe the commodity groups should be involved,” Hollingsworth said.

She pointed out that FMI has asked each commodity group to develop a “cost-effective, but very reliable system.”

Then, she said, FMI has no problem with the government enforcing the systems that each commodity group develops.

“Our members are in total alignment with the fact that we need a better traceback system,” Hollingsworth said.