TAINTED: The Flawed Meat Safety System
Lack of oversight and will put consumers at risk
First of two parts
The United States' flawed meat-inspection system, which relies heavily on self-policing by the industry, discourages aggressive enforcement by government inspectors and often fails to protect consumers until it is too late, an Inquirer investigation has found.
An examination of outbreaks of disease linked to unsanitary meat plants reveals a pattern of unheeded warnings and lax response by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For example:
Inspectors knew that deadly E. coli bacteria had been found 34 times at a former ConAgra Foods beef plant in Greeley, Colo., but failed to "connect the dots" leading to last summer's outbreak that caused 47 illnesses and one death, the agency's top food-safety official acknowledged.
In the months before an Excel Corp. beef plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., triggered an E. coli outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed a 3-year-old girl in 2000, inspectors had issued dozens of reports for fecal contamination on carcasses and sought permission to discipline the plant. But the agency allowed production to continue.
Before a Wampler Foods poultry plant in Montgomery County was linked to last year's listeria outbreak that caused eight deaths and three miscarriages, USDA supervisors ignored an inspector's repeated pleas to correct "horrendous" food-safety conditions at the plant, the inspector says.
Each year, food contamination in the United States causes 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, meat companies voluntarily recalled a record amount of potentially tainted meat, including 27 million pounds of cooked deli meats from the Wampler plant in Franconia Township, in the third-largest recall in U.S. history.
The recalls have increased scrutiny on conditions inside the nation's 6,500 meat-processing plants and sparked criticism of an inspection system the government introduced in 1998, which transferred most food-safety controls from USDA inspectors to meat company employees.
The nation's food-safety officials say the inspection system is better than ever.
In defense of its meat-inspection policies, USDA officials point to significant reductions since 1996 in illnesses from listeria, campylobacter, and the strain of salmonella associated with meat. There has been no major change over that period in the incidence of E. coli poisoning, and in 2002, the last year for which data are available, health officials saw an increase from 2001 in overall cases of salmonella and E. coli.
The spate of recalls has prompted the agency to reexamine microbial testing policies, improve training for its inspection staff, and urge meat packers to improve. In a tough speech last year to industry executives, Garry McKee, the government's administrator of food inspection, blamed some plant operators for "not even recognizing that pathogens exist."
The new inspection system has diminished the intensity of government oversight, making the USDA a "reactionary agency that only responds to disasters," said Arthur Hughes, an inspector in Maine for 35 years and regional president of the inspectors' union. Hughes and other inspectors worry that the inspection force, which has been downsized from 12,000 field personnel in 1978 to 7,600 today, is dangerously understaffed.
Furthermore, the agency lacks the legal muscle to keep the $120 billion-a-year meatpacking industry in line, critics say.
The USDA does not have the authority to order recalls, issue civil fines against plant operators, close plants that repeatedly exceed allowable limits for certain bacterial contamination, or tell the public which retailers received recalled products.
"The laws, frankly, are not sufficiently clear to give the USDA the power it needs to properly regulate meat and poultry safety," said Dan Glickman, agriculture secretary from 1995 to 2001. "The government should have the same kind of power vis-a-vis the meat industry that the FAA has with respect to the airline industry.
"That is, they ought to be able to levy civil fines and shut down a meat plant like they can shut down an airline," he said. "But, for years, the meat and poultry industry has successfully fought to keep the agency from expanding those authorities."
Five years ago, the USDA implemented a system that radically changed the way meat was inspected.
The move came after E. coli-tainted hamburgers from Jack in the Box restaurants killed four children and sickened 700 other people in the Pacific Northwest in 1993, prompting the USDA to look for a better way to detect harmful bacteria in meat.
The result was the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system. The system required meat processors to identify points where contamination was likely to occur and then target bacteria in those areas with chemical rinses, pasteurization, refrigeration and steam baths.
HACCP placed the initiative for food safety squarely on the industry, with government filling an oversight role. Although the system continues to be fine-tuned, its early years have been marked by evidence of systemwide failures.
Last year, an audit by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that most inspectors lacked training to understand the science behind HACCP plans, could not recognize basic sanitation problems, and failed to issue deficiency reports in plants with chronic failures.
And more than half of large beef plants have scientific flaws in their efforts to fight E. coli, according to USDA data released in February. The finding came in the wake of last summer's ConAgra recall, as the USDA ordered all large beef plants to reassess their controls for E. coli. The bacteria causes 73,000 illnesses and 60 deaths a year.
Since HACCP was implemented, the number of annual recalls has nearly tripled, from 44 in 1998 to 118 in 2002. Last year, 59 million pounds of meat were recalled - more than three times the 2001 total.
"The record extent of the recalls is evidence of what we've been saying for years - there is an under-recognized public-health emergency in food safety," said Karen Taylor Mitchell of Safe Tables Our Priority, an advocacy group for food-borne disease victims.
By the time a company issues a recall, tainted meat usually has been on shelves for weeks or months, said William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who sued Jack in the Box for millions of dollars and has represented hundreds of other victims of food-borne disease.
In recent years, the vast majority of recalled meat has not been returned, which critics say is emblematic of a flawed recall process. The unrecovered meat has either been eaten or thrown away.
"The only time you ever see a recall is when people start getting sick, or USDA finds pathogens through random sampling at the retail level," Marler said. "By then, the vast majority of it has already been consumed, or it's sitting in people's freezers. How can you recall meat that somebody already ate?"
USDA and industry representatives, however, say that HACCP, though a work in progress, has improved the safety of the nation's meat supply. Increased recalls are evidence of that, they say, thanks to better detection through expanded microbial testing in plants and retail sites.
Elsa Murano, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, said last year's recalls by ConAgra and Wampler "could have happened at any time, because they are completely unrelated episodes and completely unrelated products and sources."
USDA and industry officials point to recent statistics from the CDC showing decreases in illness rates from some food-borne pathogens.
From 1996 through 2002, reported illnesses from listeria decreased by 38 percent; Salmonella typhimurium (which is linked to meat products) by 31 percent; and campylobacter by 24 percent. Over the same period, the number of infections from E. coli did not change significantly. In 2002, the overall incidence of salmonella and E. coli increased over the previous year.
"We have to look at the empirical evidence, which shows that food-borne illness and bacterial contamination is down," said Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute, a lobbying and trade organization. "The fact is, we have an amazing food supply. It is so inexpensive and so safe."
"I'm not trying to justify the presence of these pathogens in the food supply, but they are naturally occurring bacteria found in raw agricultural products," Riley said. "That's why meat and poultry comes with safe-handling instructions."
The new chief of the nation's food-safety agency defends the HACCP system but acknowledges that inspectors need better training.
"HACCP has proven nationally and internationally to be a very effective system," said McKee, a Wyoming health official who was appointed head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service last year. "I think the issue, for the agency and the industry, is to more adequately implement that system... without having recalls."
Given today's pathogen-reduction technologies and bacterial detection methods, there is wide agreement that illness rates and recalls are unnecessarily high. With each recall exposing a "failure in the system" - as McKee recently told the American Meat Institute - what has gone wrong?
An examination of major recalls in recent years reveals a common thread of agency mismanagement.
The USDA has failed to crack down on unsafe plants after inspectors had documented repeated sanitary lapses. Tainted meat has been shipped out when microbial testing revealed high levels of harmful bacteria in plants. Field inspectors who sought to take aggressive enforcement actions against plants have been ignored or rebuffed by their USDA supervisors.
Vincent Erthal, a USDA inspector formerly at the Wampler Foods plant in Franconia Township, said the USDA blocked his efforts to correct sanitary failures in the two years before October's listeria outbreak, which caused eight deaths, 54 other illnesses, and three miscarriages.
The real problem, Erthal said, was USDA supervisors who shielded the plant from enforcement actions.
Erthal said the plant's chief inspector rigged listeria tests by giving Wampler officials advance notice of random tests, which allowed them to conduct a special cleanup the night before the samples were collected.
Wampler spokesman Ray Atkinson said the company never received advance warning of the government's tests, and that Wampler had "acted swiftly and appropriately to address food-safety issues after they have come to our attention."
Erthal said USDA supervisors stifled his attempts to force a cleanup at the plant in the fall of 2001, more than 10 months before the listeria outbreak. Four months before the outbreak, the government's chief inspector at the plant, Debra Martin, learned that company testing had revealed high levels of listeria in the plant but took no action, Erthal said.
USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said "the agency was unaware that [Wampler] had an environmental testing program, and we did not know of any results they were getting." Cohen declined to comment further on Erthal's allegations, citing a continuing investigation by the USDA's Office of Inspector General.
Meat inspection has been compromised by the USDA's unwillingness to interfere with production, said Felicia Nestor, of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington organization that provides legal services to government whistle-blowers.
Last year, the organization released a USDA memorandum that agency officials had sent to line inspectors in Kansas City. The document said inspectors would be held accountable for halting production lines unless there was "direct product contamination." Suspected cross-contamination between cooked and uncooked meats, which carries a risk for the transfer of pathogens, would not justify lost production, the memo said.
"Remember, YOU are accountable for this very serious responsibility of stopping the company's production for the benefit of food safety," it said. "Be sure that your supervisors can support your decision."
That kind of support was hard to come by for former USDA veterinarian Mike Schwochert, who worked at an Excel Corp. beef slaughter plant in Fort Morgan, Colo.
"We would say that nothing was going to happen inside the plant until we had body bags," Schwochert said.
In the summer of 2000, an E. coli outbreak traced to the Excel plant killed 3-year-old Brianna Kriefall of Milwaukee after she ate fruit from a Sizzler restaurant that kitchen workers had splattered with juice from contaminated beef tips. More than 500 people were sickened in the outbreak.
Well before anyone got sick, Schwochert and other inspectors repeatedly cited the Excel plant that supplied Sizzler for dirty production surfaces and fecal contamination on carcasses - the primary mode of E. coli transmission. Government records showed that the plant was written up 26 times in a 10-month period before the girl's death.
Schwochert and other inspectors repeatedly requested permission to take enforcement against the Excel plant, such as slowing line speeds, or forcing a shutdown by withdrawing inspectors from the plant. But time after time, Schwochert said, the USDA district office told him the "documentation was not good enough."
"We never saw any escalation of regulatory control," said Schwochert, who is retired from the USDA. "It would be the same as taking away a highway patrolman's ability to write speeding tickets. If you can't write the ticket, all you're doing is waiting for an accident to happen."
USDA spokesman Cohen said a "great deal of enforcement activity" took place at the Excel plant.
"The plant was required to demonstrate that their systems for controlling fecal contamination were adequate, because they had been cited for violating the zero-tolerance policy on that," Cohen said. He said the USDA ultimately determined that the plant was doing a good enough job to stay in business.
The agency's failure to heed warnings of its field inspectors was apparent in last year's E. coli outbreak from the ConAgra plant (now owned by Swift & Co.) in Greeley, Colo.
In February 2002, five months before the company recalled 18.6 million pounds of beef in response to an outbreak blamed for 47 illnesses and one death, USDA testing at a small beef plant in Miles City, Mont., turned up four positive E. coli samples.
Inspectors at Montana Quality Foods quickly determined that the contaminated beef came from ConAgra's Greeley slaughterhouse. Fearing a wider public health risk from the Greeley plant, USDA veterinarian Daryl Burden and another inspector sent a letter to district supervisor Nathaniel Clark in Minneapolis, identifying the ConAgra plant as the likely source of a potential catastrophe.
Officials did not launch a full-scale investigation of the Greeley plant until July, after people in 23 states began showing up in hospitals with the same strain of E. coli contamination.
"This kind of thing happens all the time, where field inspection personnel notify management of potential problems, and they are ignored," said Burden, who has since transferred out of the food-safety division. "As with almost anything else, no one seems to want to listen until many more people are sick or dead."
Clark declined to comment and referred inquiries to the USDA's congressional affairs office in Washington. In Washington, Cohen said the USDA had attempted to follow up on Burden's tip, but ConAgra had already shipped the meat from the suspected production day into commerce, so there was no way of verifying whether the Greeley plant was, in fact, the source of the E. coli.
The agency overlooked red flags in Greeley. Although 34 positive E. coli samples had been taken by ConAgra workers in the months before the recall, inspectors simply disposed of individual batches of E. coli-tainted beef without forcing the plant to adopt corrective measures. USDA blamed poorly trained inspectors.
"HACCP is not a complete solution," former Agriculture Secretary Glickman said. "The government needs the powers to protect the people who are consuming the product, and I think the bottom line is, the USDA lacks the authority that it needs."
Second of two parts: An Unseen Killer's Toll