RECALLS OF GROUND beef contaminated with E. coli numbered 20 this year, nearly matching the record of 21 such recalls in 2002 and in 2004.
While no fatalities were recorded, at least one company was put out of business, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, taking a new look at oversight and procedures, issued new guidelines.
Topps Meat Co., one of the nation's largest suppliers of frozen beef patties, announced on Oct. 5 that it was shutting down its operations. The announcement came just six days after the company had recalled 21.7 million pounds of product following an E. coli outbreak that sickened 30 people in eight states.
Representing a year's worth of production, the recall was the largest E. coli-related recall this year, and was in fact the second-largest in U.S. history.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, finding the company's E. coli 0157:H7 controls inadequate, issued a notice of suspension for the raw ground processes.
Meanwhile, over Columbus Day weekend, in an unrelated outbreak, Cargill Meat Solutions, a division of Cargill, voluntarily recalled 845,000 pounds of frozen ground beef patties. That recall, which involved the company's Butler, Wis., plant, followed an investigation into four illnesses in Minnesota.
In the aftermath of those most recent recalls, FSIS announced new efforts.
“We accelerated some actions we had already planned to implement next spring,” Amanda Eachim, USDA FSIS spokeswoman, told SN.
Key actions earlier this year, she said, included testing trim — as opposed to waiting to test the ground product — and implementing a more sensitive test to detect the presence of E. coli.
Spurred by the fall recalls, the agency held a teleconference Oct. 23.
At that time, Dr. Richard Raymond, a USDA undersecretary for food safety, outlined key initiatives, one of which shortens time lags between incidence alerts and recalls. Raymond also described broadened testing.
“We are announcing today that we will begin testing more domestic and imported ground beef components,” Raymond said. “FSIS will begin testing materials used as components in raw ground beef, in addition to the beef trim that is already tested. FSIS is also requiring countries whose beef is imported to the U.S. to conduct the same sampling or at least an equivalent measure.”
Yet, the USDA/FSIS response was regarded by some industry and consumer groups as inadequate.
“First of all, neither the USDA nor FDA have recall authority, and then, when a company does recall product, the government doesn't require distribution lists to be made public,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, senior researcher at Consumers Union, Yonkers, N.Y.
“Part of the problem is [USDA/FSIS] are all end-of-the-pipe solutions,” Hansen said, stressing that most contamination can be traced back to the slaughterhouses.
“One [USDA/FSIS] notice in particular has been intentionally designed to draw attention away from the large slaughter plants and keep the focus on destination plants,” said John Munsell, manager, Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, Miles City, Mont.
Meanwhile, this month, The New York Times ran a lengthy story outlining programs, using advanced technology, that meat processors have put into place to reduce the risk of E. coli contamination.
“If you gave me a million zillion dollars and said, ‘Give me a plant that doesn't have E. coli,’ I couldn't do it,” Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the paper, emphasizing that prevention and detection are key.
The quote was cited by consultant Ted Taft, managing director of Wilton, Conn.-based Meridian, a sales and marketing organization.
Taft emphasized, though, that even as ground beef recalls jumped this year, “the industry has made Herculean efforts to protect the consumer from contamination.”