USDA reviews regulations for meat safety


In the wake of recent illnesses, officials are looking for ways to ensure products are free of E. coli bacteria.

Washington, D.C. - If anyone should have been able to avoid a food-borne illness, it was Ken Weistaner. He inspects restaurants for a living, making sure they meet government and company safety standards.

Yet Weistaner's 8-year-old son, Josh, was one of the first victims of E. coli poisoning linked to a ConAgra Foods slaughterhouse in Colorado.

"He was really sick - bloody stool, bloody vomit. We were really worried about him," Weistaner, of Bailey, Colo., said.

As of Friday, tainted beef linked to the ConAgra plant had sickened 28 people in seven states, including an unidentified woman in Iowa, prompting a massive recall and forcing the Bush administration to rethink the way it regulates the beef industry.

"We're looking at and discussing far-reaching solutions that would involve more than testing" meat, said Steve Cohen, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

"We would like to move toward a process that would have a higher degree of certainty that E. coli would not be making its way into products," he said.

E. coli 0157:H7 causes an estimated 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths a year.

The Agriculture Department randomly tests beef in stores and processing plants for E. coli and requires meat and poultry plants to have detailed sanitation plans for preventing bacterial contamination. Processors also are tested periodically for the presence of salmonella bacteria, which the USDA considers an indication of how well the plants' sanitation systems are working. Otherwise, it's largely up to companies to decide what kind of sanitation processes to use and how often to test their product.

Consumer advocates say the USDA needs to increase its random sampling, require meat plants to do more of their own testing for bacteria, and crack down on plants that produce contaminated products.

"This is devastating for the industry," said Carol Tucker Foreman, a food-safety expert with Consumer Federation of America.

The outbreak also has underscored problems with the way recalls are handled. Because the USDA does not release the names of stores and wholesalers that processors sell their meat to, many consumers have found it nearly impossible to tell whether they bought any of the nearly 19 million pounds of beef covered by the recall.

Required recalls

On Capitol Hill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Ia., introduced legislation giving the Agriculture Department authority to require companies to recall tainted food. Food recalls are now done voluntarily. The legislation would not require disclosure of stores that handled the meat.

After an E. coli outbreak killed four customers of Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993, the burger chain came up with the toughest safety rules in the industry for its meat suppliers.

Jack in the Box buys its hamburger only from plants that agree to constantly test the meat for E. coli, something the government doesn't require. The company also inspects the slaughterhouses that sell beef to the plants that grind the meat.

Slaughterhouses that don't meet Jack in the Box standards are dropped from the company's approved supplier lists. ConAgra's Greeley plant is one of those that had been discontinued, although Jack in the Box officials won't say why.

Other burger chains, including McDonald's, followed suit in setting standards for their suppliers. A major food retailer, Costco, has adopted testing requirements, too.

"If you want to stop outbreaks, it's easy: Just test your meat," said Robert LaBudde, a former North Carolina State University scientist who is a consultant to meatpackers. "If they tested all of the meat that's used in ground beef, there would be no outbreaks of E. coli attributable to ground beef."

Industry officials disagree. They say that E. coli, which is found throughout cattle herds in summer, is very difficult to find in meat, and that consumers bear some responsibility for preventing outbreaks. Cooking meat to 160 degrees will kill the bacteria.

"You have to recognize the inherent difficulties of a raw product," said Jeremy Russell, a spokesman for the National Meat Association.

Jack in the Box officials say their testing requirements added only a half-cent per pound to the cost of its meat - and the company has never had an E. coli problem since the tests were started after the 1993 outbreak. Plants that grind beef for Jack in the Box are required to test the meat every 15 minutes.

"We've demonstrated that we can do it efficiently and effectively," said David Theno, the company's senior vice president of quality and logistics.

The USDA tests about 7,000 samples of meat each year for E. coli, occasionally at stores but primarily at the 1,700 meat plants that it regulates. Last year, 59 samples tested positive for E. coli; so far this year there have been 28.

Probe continues

The government is still investigating the ConAgra outbreak and is requiring the company to test every batch of beef for E. coli until it finds what went wrong in the Greeley plant, said the USDA's Cohen.

The department already has changed one policy in the wake of the incident. USDA inspectors discovered E. coli at the plant in June but waited nearly two weeks to inform company officials, who initiated a recall the next day. USDA officials say they will no longer wait to notify plants when E. coli tests are positive.

The plant has a system of washes and rinses that is designed to cleanse any bacteria from carcasses. The plant also tests approximately one in every 250 carcasses for E. coli and has never failed one of the USDA's salmonella tests. The plant was exempt from USDA's random testing for E. coli because it had such an exemplary record of controlling for the bacteria, Cohen said.

Weistaner, meanwhile, has decided he will never cook burgers without using a thermometer, something he didn't do with the meat he served to his son in June.

"I would still today swear I cooked that meat past 160 degrees," he said. "But the facts probably prove me wrong."