June 2008 Issue

Beef Beware?
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 10 No. 6 P. 36

February’s massive meat recall was certainly an animal cruelty issue, but how much of a food safety concern did it truly represent?

When 143 million pounds of ground beef were recalled in February from Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in California, it made headlines as the largest beef recall in history and got everyone questioning the safety of the meat they consume. Does the U.S. meat supply pose a risk to consumers? What can be done to prevent another recall?

This huge recall was prompted when the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video in January showing Westland/Hallmark Meat Company workers beating sick dairy cows (who are often taken to slaughter once they become “milked out”) and using a forklift to try to force them to walk. Cows that cannot walk on their own, called downer cows, are banned from use in the food supply because they pose an increased risk of mad cow disease since they often wallow in their feces and have poor immune systems. The plant also failed to call a veterinarian to inspect these sick animals before allowing them into the slaughterhouse.

Some fear that this early 2008 event will mark the beginning of another year of increasing Escherichia coli concerns. Over the past several years, the number of E. coli-related recalls has risen. In 2007, there were 21 recalls of beef related to the potentially deadly strain compared with eight recalls in 2006 and five in 2005. But this recent recall was the largest to date. Federal officials say the recent recall was more than four times the previous record—a 1999 recall of 35 million pounds of ground beef by Thorn Apple Valley. Westland/Hallmark recalled all frozen and raw beef products since February 2006.

To Fear or Not to Fear?
The Humane Society stated that this plant was chosen at random for its undercover video, prompting the organization to wonder whether this may be a more widespread problem. But many say there’s no reason to panic.

“There are still some rogue plants out there that are not on board with the system,” admits Temple Grandin, PhD, an animal-handling expert at Colorado State University. Grandin, who regularly visits plants and helped develop industry guidelines, says those few plants are tainting the rest of the industry, which does follow proper procedures. “The Humane Society has implied that Hallmark is like all plants, and it’s simply not true. I’ve worked for 35 years to improve this system. If you were to visit a large slaughterhouse, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised—sad, perhaps—but pleasantly surprised at how well it operated.”

“We can’t go running scared from this incident,” adds Colleen Thompson, MS, RD, a dietitian at the University of Connecticut. “In theory, our food supply is extremely safe. If we start thinking too much about it, there would be a lot of things we wouldn’t eat. There was just a cantaloupe recall in March because of Salmonella. If you think too much about it, everything could be potentially contaminated.”

While some Hallmark employees were clearly ignoring the guidelines and allowing sick animals into the slaughterhouse, officials have said there was minimal health risk from the recalled meat. In fact, the recall was classified as a class 2 recall, meaning the chances of any health issues were remote. In the past, other large recalls involving E. coli have been class 1.

Of the 143 million pounds of recalled meat, officials say 37 million went to make hamburgers, chili, and tacos for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs. Agriculture officials also pointed out the rarity of mad cow disease and explained that the brains and spinal cords (the areas that harbor the disease) would not have made it into the food supply, further decreasing the risk that there would be any health concerns from the recalled meat. To date, no sickness from the meat has been reported.

“I saw images of them throwing away dumpster loads of meat on the news,” says Grandin. “I can tell you right now that if I had been a janitor at one of those schools, I would have taken a box of that meat and I would have cooked it and eaten it. If I had any inclination that this meat had mad cow disease, I wouldn’t be saying this, but I think the recall of millions of pounds of meat was a gross overreaction. I have an ethical problem with throwing away perfectly good food. What this company was doing was totally cruel and some of the worst animal abuse I’ve ever seen. But I think this is an animal cruelty case, and I simply don’t see any danger to that meat.”

What Can Be Done?
We can’t be certain what’s happening at every meat plant, so instead of panicking about the meat supply, consumers should arm themselves with information about what regulations exist to protect them.

“This incident has brought the public’s attention to this issue,” says Julie Albrecht, PhD, RD, a professor and an extension food specialist in the department of nutrition and health sciences at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “It’s something that’s happened in the meat industry which may be happening in other places. But the important thing is that it brings the public’s attention to the issue, which can help make changes.”

“This video got everyone’s attention,” says Jeff Nelken, BS, MA, a food safety and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point expert who coaches personnel to improve food safety awareness. “Now the question that needs to be addressed is: Why did this happen? What happened to the USDA inspector during this time?”

It may simply be that USDA inspectors missed the violations or the plant operators were behaving when an inspector was present. The USDA has denied that its enforcement was insufficient and has maintained that this was an isolated incident of animal cruelty that went undetected until the undercover video caught the workers in the act. However, many have argued that this event should warrant a review of regulations and perhaps some changes to them.

Grandin says that’s already happening, and the industry continues to make vast improvements. “We are now working on putting video cameras in slaughterhouses,” she says. But the bottom line is that the dairy industry needs to clean up its act, Grandin adds. “It is unacceptable that any of them let their cows get emaciated and into such sick and terrible condition. The way to prevent this is that the dairies need to sell their cows [to the slaughterhouses] before they get sick. Dairies are responsible for part of this problem, too,” she says.

Just like the rogue meat plants, Grandin notes, there are rogue dairies tainting the industry. “I’d say it’s about 10% of dairies creating this problem,” she says.
But Grandin also admits that this particular meat plant was way out of line. “It’s absolutely disgusting. They were trying to ram these animals around with a forklift. What’s a forklift even doing on site?” she says. “They had no business even having a forklift.”

The real key is getting plants to follow the existing rules and guidelines, not to create new ones, says Albrecht. “This incident was a violation of regulations that were already in place,” she explains. “And so I’m not sure that more regulations are the answer. More regulations will not prevent criminals from doing what they think they have the right to do. Responsible companies are already following the rules. It’s sad to think, but there will always be people who don’t think the rules are made for them. The problem is how to deal with those companies that aren’t following the regulations.”

Mad cow disease generates a lot of fear, continues Albrecht, which warrants handling this issue seriously, even if the risk was low. “Cows that are downers are at a greater risk of the disease, but it’s still very rare,” she says. “But the consequences are long term. It’s a disease that takes a long time to occur and takes a long time to detect. Even if the risk of this plant putting down cattle into the food supply is low, this is a serious disease that causes a lot of fear. It’s the reason for running the business in a responsible manner and simply avoiding putting any of that kind of meat into the supply.”

Westland/Hallmark went out of business after the recall, and many think it was a just punishment. “We have to have a fair amount of faith in our system that it is going to work,” says Albrecht. “And in this case it did—the company did go under. That is the ultimate punishment.”

Grandin, however, believes it was too harsh. “I think the plant needed to get in a great deal of trouble but not bankrupted,” she says. “The plant needed a temporary shutdown that they could’ve survived. This is the biggest recall we’ve ever had, and it doesn’t make any sense.” She adds that she was disappointed the plant closed because she was going to help it clean up its act. “At my suggestion, that plant went out and bought 13 cameras to install,” she notes.

Duty to Protect Yourself
In many ways, the public has no choice but to trust that guidelines are being enforced and followed. Still, there are many steps that average consumers can take to protect themselves. Dietitians can educate their clients on buying safe meat and also handling it safely at home.

“There are always going to be some slips within the industry, so the consumer needs to practice common sense and err on the side of caution,” says Thompson. “I do think it helps to always buy meat from a reputable location. You can feel confident that reputable grocery stores are working to get meat from the plant to the store in the shortest time possible and are always using refrigerated trucks. A large grocery store is going to have a lot of steps in place to make sure the meat makes it to the store safely and is handled properly. Smaller stores might not have the space, so where are they putting the food? You might be a little more wary [of buying meat there].”

The responsibility for safety shifts to consumers from the time they enter the meat aisle at the grocery store. At that point, they need to put their faith in the system, assuming the meat in front of them met all of the guidelines, and then take on the duty of keeping things safe. “When you purchase perishable and potentially hazardous food like ground beef or raw fish, it needs to be in a separate area of the shopping cart,” says Thompson. “It also needs to be bagged separately. Do not allow your ground beef to wind up in the same bag as your deli meat, which is already cooked. You will risk allowing juices from the raw meat to contaminate the rest of your food.”

Once the meat is home, it is the consumers’ responsibility to practice safe handling, cooking, and storing practices. Ironically, for as much as some people worry about how others are handling their food, they may not practice the safest handling techniques in their own home.

“Never place anything raw on the kitchen counters; always use a cutting board,” says Thompson. “It’s even better if it’s a cutting board that will fit in the dishwasher where it’ll reach the hottest temperature for cleaning.”

And cooking meat requires safety precautions as well. Eyeing the meat to gauge whether it’s done is simply not enough. “Always cook meats to a safe temperature and use a thermometer to verify those temperatures,” says Nelken.

“Cooking beef to the proper internal temperature kills a lot of bacteria,” adds Thompson. “And a meat thermometer is the only real way to tell if you’ve cooked it to the proper temperature. You should also wait for the temperature to hold for at least 15 seconds.”

“It’s the consumer’s responsibility of handling food properly in all stages—the initial storage, during preparation, when serving, and also any storage afterwards,” notes Albrecht. “The cooked meat needs to be kept refrigerated and when it’s going to be eaten again, reheated thoroughly.”

And hand washing should be done through all stages as well. “Always wash your hands at every single step,” says Thompson. “And that means vigorously rubbing for the full 20 seconds to remove all bacteria.”

These precautions seem small, but even a small step ignored during the process can lead to the transfer of dangerous bacteria. We wouldn’t accept the meat plants skipping a precaution, and we shouldn’t allow it at home either. The truth is plenty of foodborne illnesses start in the kitchen, says Albrecht. “We just don’t hear about them the way we would at a large restaurant.”

Ensuring that safe meat winds up on our dinner table is more within our control than consumers may realize, and it comes down to taking that role seriously through all of its stages.

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.