In just a year and a half, the American meat industry has experienced a whiplash of beef recalls. 40 million pounds of meat tainted with highly toxic E. coli O157:H7 has been publicly recalled, up by a staggering factor of two hundred from the 2006 amount of only 181,900 pounds.
“This is beyond the ‘wheels coming off’ of the meat supply system,” said food borne illness attorney William Marler. “It’s the entire train in a tangled heap. And the people caught in the train wreck are you and me and all of our neighbors. When reports say that there is a one in 400 chance that the package of ground beef you pick up at the supermarket will be tainted with a lethal bacterium, the food safety system is no longer functioning, and immediate, radical steps must be taken.”
In more than thirty recalls ranging from a few hundred to millions of pounds, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has deemed E. coli contaminated meat a class I (one) health hazard to consumers. (A class I recall involves a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.)
“There are many theories as to why there has been such an unprecedented jump in E. coli,” said Marler. “It could be regulatory complacency, better reporting, or immigration sweeps that have left slaughterhouses empty of skilled workers. Global warming may be spreading fecal dust. High oil prices may have led to an E. coli-producing diet for cattle. The microbe itself may even be evolving to elude capture. Another possibility is that the higher costs of slaughterhouse inputs (beef cattle) have collided with retailer’s low price pressures on outputs (hamburger) from those same slaughterhouses. These ideas need investigation and research, so that real change can begin.”
To advance that change, Marler reached out to the food safety community and asked for ideas from experts, scientists, regulators, and food agency brass. He distilled the volumes of submitted suggestions into ten action items (full text can be found here):
• Improve surveillance and reporting of bacterial and viral diseases.
• Require real training and certification of food handlers at restaurants and grocery stores.
• Stiffen license requirements for large farm, retail, and wholesale food outlets.
• Increase food inspections.
• Reorganize federal, state, and local food safety agencies to increase cooperation and reduce wasteful overlap and conflicts.
• Establish tax credits for companies with good food safety records, and greater legal consequences for sickening or killing customers with tainted food.
• Use our technology to make food more traceable
• Promote university research
• Improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness
• Provide Presidential leadership on a topic that impacts every single one of us.
“There are a lot of very smart, very dedicated professionals in the food safety community,” Marler concluded. “They have spent their careers working toward a better food supply, and that collective knowledge is available to design and implement change. We need our leaders to get on board, and get the food safety train back on track.”