In a summer full of headlines about corporate misdeeds and irresponsibility, ConAgra’s massive recall in July stands apart. The defective product wasn’t fiber optic cable, energy futures or some esoteric financial instrument. It was bad meat–almost 19 million pounds of beef potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, enough to supply a tainted burger to at least one-fourth of the US population. Unlike other prominent scandals, this one does not seem to involve any falsification of records, shredding of crucial documents or deliberate violation of the law. And that makes it all the more disturbing. The Bush Administration and its Republican allies in Congress have allowed the meatpacking industry to gain control of the nation’s food safety system, much as the airline industry was given responsibility for airport security in the years leading up to the September 11 attacks. The deregulation of food safety makes about as much sense as the deregulation of air safety. Anyone who eats meat these days should be deeply concerned about what our meatpacking companies now have the freedom to sell.
At the heart of the food safety debate is the issue of microbial testing. Consumer advocates argue that the federal government should be testing meat for dangerous pathogens and imposing tough penalties on companies that repeatedly fail those tests. The meatpacking industry, which has been battling new food safety measures for almost a century, strongly disagrees. In 1985 a panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences warned that the nation’s meat inspection system was obsolete. At the time USDA inspectors relied solely on visual and olfactory clues to detect tainted meat. After the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993, the Clinton Administration announced that it would begin random testing for E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef. The meatpacking industry promptly sued the USDA in federal court to block such tests.
E. coli O157:H7, the pathogen involved in both the Jack in the Box outbreak and the recent ConAgra recall, can cause severe illness or death, especially among children, the elderly and people who are immuno-suppressed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that about 73,000 Americans are sickened by E. coli O157:H7 every year. An additional 37,000 are sickened by other dangerous strains of E. coli also linked to ground beef. At a slaughterhouse these pathogens are spread when manure or stomach contents get splattered on the meat.
The USDA won the 1993 lawsuit, began random testing for E. coli O157:H7 and introduced a “science-based” inspection system in 1996 that requires various microbial tests by meatpacking companies and by the government. The new system, however, has been so weakened by industry opposition and legal challenges that it now may be less effective than the old one. Under the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans that now regulate production at meatpacking plants, many food safety tasks have been shifted from USDA inspectors to company employees.
In return for such concessions, the USDA gained the power to test for salmonella and to shut down plants that repeatedly failed those tests. Salmonella is spread primarily by fecal material, and its presence in ground beef suggests that other dangerous pathogens may be present as well. In November 1999, the USDA shut down a meatpacking plant for repeatedly failing salmonella tests. The Texas company operating the plant, Supreme Beef Processors, happened to be one of the leading suppliers of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program. With strong backing from the meatpacking industry, Supreme Beef sued the USDA, eventually won the lawsuit and succeeded this past December in overturning the USDA’s salmonella limits. About 1.4 million Americans are sickened by salmonella every year, and the CDC has linked a nasty, antibiotic-resistant strain of the bug to ground beef. Nevertheless, it is now perfectly legal to sell ground beef that is thoroughly contaminated with salmonella–and sell it with the USDA’s seal of approval.
This summer’s ConAgra recall raises questions not only about the nation’s food safety rules but also about the USDA’s competence to enforce them. The USDA conducts its random tests for E. coli O157:H7 at wholesale and retail locations, not at the gigantic slaughterhouses where the meat is usually contaminated. By the time the USDA discovers tainted meat, it’s already being distributed. On June 17 and 19, USDA test results showed that beef shipped from the ConAgra slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado was contaminated. But the USDA failed to inform ConAgra for almost two weeks. Meanwhile, the bad meat continued to be sold at supermarkets, served at countless restaurants and grilled at outdoor barbecues nationwide. Although the packages said “Freeze or sell by 06 18 02,” Safeway supermarkets in Colorado held a two-for-one sale of the questionable ConAgra meat from June 19 to June 25.
Four days later the USDA informed ConAgra that it had distributed beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.ConAgra announced a “voluntary recall” of 354,200 pounds. Then health authorities noticed that people were getting severely ill, mainly small children in Colorado. A common symptom was vomiting and defecating blood. After consultations with the USDA, ConAgra expanded the voluntary recall on July 19 to include an additional 18.3 million pounds of beef processed at the Greeley plant between April 12 and July 11. About three dozen illnesses and one death have thus far been linked to ConAgra’s meat. Based on previous E. coli outbreaks, perhaps twenty times that number of illnesses occurred without being properly diagnosed or reported. According to the most recent tally, less than one-tenth of the 18.6 million pounds of ConAgra’s recalled meat has been recovered. The rest has most likely been eaten.
Throughout the recall, USDA officials praised ConAgra for how well it had cooperated with the government, offering little criticism or explanation of how this company had managed to ship thousands of tons of potentially contaminated meat for months. The USDA also deflected criticism of its own role in the outbreak; a Montana wholesaler had warned the agency in February that beef shipped from ConAgra’s plant in Greeley was tainted. Instead of imposing a tough penalty on ConAgra, the USDA often seemed eager to shift the blame and responsibility to consumers. “If people cooked their food correctly,” said Elsa Murano, USDA under secretary for food safety, “a lot of outbreaks would not take place.”
Although ConAgra apparently violated no laws, its behavior made clear where the real power lies. The recall of its meat was entirely voluntary. In an age when defective Happy Meal toys can be swiftly ordered off the market at the slightest hint of a choking hazard, the government can neither demand the recall of potentially deadly meat nor impose civil fines on companies that sell it. ConAgra has refused to disclose publicly which restaurants, distributors and supermarkets got meat from Greeley; federal law does not require the company to do so. Colorado health officials did not receive a list showing where ConAgra’s meat had been distributed until the first week of August–more than a month after the initial recall. Health officials in Utah and Oklahoma did not receive that information from ConAgra until the third week in August. “I know it’s here,” an Oklahoma public health official told the Denver Post at one point, referring to the recalled meat. “But without knowing where it went, there’s not a whole lot we can do.” In future recalls, ConAgra now promises to do a better job of sharing information with state health authorities–even though the law does not require the company to do so.
ConAgra’s meatpacking operations in Greeley are described at length in my book Fast Food Nation, and I’ve spent a great deal of time with workers there. For years they have complained about excessive line speeds. The same factors often responsible for injuries in a slaughterhouse can also lead to food safety problems. When workers work too fast, they tend to make mistakes, harming themselves or inadvertently contaminating the meat.
America’s food safety system has been expertly designed not to protect the public health but to protect the meatpacking industry from liability. The industry has received abundant help in this effort from the Republican Party, which for more than a decade has thwarted Congressional efforts to expand the USDA’s food safety authority. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2000 presidential campaign meat and livestock interests gave about $23,000 to Al Gore and about $600,000 to George W. Bush. The money was well spent. Dale Moore, chief of staff for Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, was previously the chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Elizabeth Johnson, one of Veneman’s senior advisers, was previously the associate director for food policy at the NCBA. Mary Waters, USDA assistant secretary for Congressional relations, assumed the post after working as legislative counsel for ConAgra Foods.
It would be an understatement to say that the Bush Administration has been friendly toward the big meatpackers. During Congressional testimony this past spring, Elsa Murano, USDA chief food safety advocate, argued that her agency does not need the power to order a recall of contaminated meat. Nor did it need, she said, any new authority to shut down ground beef plants because of salmonella contamination.
The meatpacking companies don’t want any of their customers to get sick. But they don’t want to be held liable for illnesses either, or to spend more money on preventing outbreaks. The exemplary food safety system at Jack in the Box increases the cost of the fast food chain’s ground beef by about one penny per pound. The other major hamburger chains also require that their suppliers provide meat largely free of dangerous pathogens–and that requirement has not yet driven the meatpacking industry into bankruptcy. Senator Tom Harkin has introduced two pieces of food safety legislation that would help fill some of the glaring gaps in the current system. The SAFER Meat, Poultry and Food Act of 2002 would give the USDA the authority to demand recalls of contaminated meat and impose civil fines on meatpacking companies. The Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction Act would place enforceable limits on the amounts of disease-causing bugs that meat can legally contain. Harkin’s bills embody a good deal of common sense. Companies that produce clean meat should be allowed to sell it; those that produce dirty meat shouldn’t. The Republican Party’s alliance with the big meatpackers does not reflect widespread public support. The issue of food safety isn’t like abortion or gun control, with passionate and fundamentally opposing views held by millions of American voters. When most people learn how the meatpacking industry operates, they’re appalled. The outrage crosses party lines. Democrat or Republican, you still have to eat.
None of the recently proposed reforms, however, would prove as important and effective as the creation of an independent food safety agency with tough enforcement powers. The USDA has a dual and conflicting mandate. It’s supposed to promote the sale of American meat–and protect consumers from unsafe meat. As long as the USDA has that dual role, consumers must be extremely careful about where they purchase beef, how they handle it and how long they cook it. While many Americans fret about the risks of bioterrorism, a much more immediate threat comes from the all-American meal. Until fundamental changes are made in our food safety system, enjoying your hamburgers medium-rare will remain a form of high-risk behavior.