Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a multi-state outbreak that linked ground beef to food poisoning from salmonella. It’s not the first bad news of its kind this year. Following 2018’s record-breaking number of ground beef recalls, 2019 is closing in on similarly disturbing amounts of contaminated meat.
Last year, just over 13 million pounds of ground beef were recalled in 31 separate instances. More than 12 million pounds were due to salmonella contamination. So far in 2019, there have been 27 recalls, some of which are still active. Notable ones include nearly 57 tons in April (that’s over 113,000 pounds) and about 65,000 pounds in October.
In comparison, just under 600,000 pounds of ground beef were recalled in all of 2016, and about 1 million in 2015.
Food poisoning from salmonella or E. coli bacteria ― the most common pathogens that make consumers sick from ground beef ― hits over 48 million Americans a year. Foodborne illness, in general, is a critical public health problem in the United States. Annually, roughly 200,000 people are hospitalized and almost 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to the latest estimates from the CDC. This doesn’t count the number of unreported cases every year.
Between cuts to U.S. Department of Agriculture jobs, lack of funding and outdated rules, experts say we simply can’t be sure that deadly pathogens are not present in the meat being distributed across the country. A highly consolidated beef industry ― the “Big Four” slaughterhouses process more than 80% of America’s beef ― is killing and gutting and preparing so many cows per day that it’s heightening the risk of contamination. Here’s how it’s spun so far out of control.
How does beef contamination happen in the first place?
Cows have E. coli and salmonella bacteria naturally present in their gut flora, which is where contamination typically originates, according to Michael J. Baker, a beef cattle extension specialist at Cornell University. It’s not dangerous or injurious to the cattle in that state.
The bacteria commonly spread during slaughter when the cow’s bowel is improperly perforated or severed. But it’s not obvious when that occurs, and inspectors with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) aren’t trained to test for signs of E. coli or salmonella contamination at the slaughtering and bloodletting stage. The tests take too long ― 48 hours ― to produce results.
Salmonella and E. coli are then transmitted to humans primarily through ground beef products. According to Dennis Burson, a meat extension and food safety specialist at the University of Nebraska, that’s because all the parts of the cow that are more likely to have been contaminated ― like the rump and thigh ― are ground up together, creating an amalgamation of contamination.
Tests for E. coli and salmonella are done after the beef is ground and ready to be packed up for sale. But practically speaking, they can’t test all the beef.
What that means is that some percentage of people who eat ground beef get sick. A recent CDC report highlighting the top 31 pathogens in food that cause hospitalization and/or death showed salmonella to be responsible for 23,128 hospitalizations, 452 deaths and over 1 million instances of episodic illness in 2016.
How is the system supposed to work?
The USDA was originally designed to serve a smaller industry of family farms on a more holistic level, Burson said. Many of the rules we see in place were created before the emergence of Big Agriculture, which didn’t really come into play until after World War II.
But today beef slaughtering is at an all-time high. According to the USDA’s latest data, 25.3 billion pounds of beef were produced in 2016, which is 6% higher than the year before. On a good day, the Big Four ― Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and National Beef ― will oversee the slaughter of tens of thousands of cows. That leaves a lot of room for human error.
FSIS employees are located at nearly 6,500 slaughtering and processing establishments and import houses and other federally regulated facilities. More than 10 FSIS employees from around the country who spoke to HuffPost said they routinely work six, and sometimes seven, days a week. Many of them said they were responsible for multiple facilities. “It’s a really demanding job,” Burson said.
And, ironically, the bells and whistles of the USDA’s rules are now helping to sustain those massive slaughter operations. These days, the smaller, more sustainably minded producers can’t afford to kill their own cows on site.
In 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping reform of food safety policy as implemented by the Food and Drug Administration. The admirable goal was to shift the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it. But the new rules as they apply to beef facilities don’t necessarily sweep broadly enough and haven’t fully kicked in yet.
Rules sometimes stand in the way of safety.
The USDA does have its own somewhat newer regulatory system called HACCP, for hazard analysis and critical control points. It was developed by a team of food scientists and engineers from the Pillsbury Company in the 1950s and implemented in 1996. The goal was to lessen the reliance on FSIS inspectors ensuring that meat was safe to eat and put pressure on cattle plants to make sure their facilities were slaughtering safely.
Under HACCP, each facility is supposed to have a written set of standard sanitation rules, conduct regular microbial testing, and meet “pathogen reduction performance” standards, which should keep salmonella out of the facility.
But there have been hiccups in fully implementing the HACCP vision. In 2001, for instance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that blocked the USDA from shuttering a Texas meat-processing plant because it had failed the HACCP safety tests for salmonella levels three different times. One test suggested that almost 50% of the beef had critical levels of salmonella.
The court held, however, that the contamination came from raw meat entering the facility and that “the statute does not authorize regulation of the levels of bacterial infection in incoming raw materials.”
In other cases, it’s the USDA’s own procedures that don’t enhance safety. Before it conducts spot checks on ground beef, for example, the agency calls the facility to warn them. When waiting for the inspectors to arrive, producers should hold the product and not sell it, said Burson. But they could theoretically push the product out ahead of the inspection and hope that any contamination is minimal and not many people get sick.
There is also a financial motivation that doesn’t always work in favor of stricter safeguards. Recalls result in over $255 million in losses each year for the food industry. Those recalls often follow reported outbreaks of illness among consumers. But the recalls are still likely cheaper for the big beef companies than to repeatedly destroy shipments at their slaughterhouses before people have gotten sick, shut down those facilities and decontaminate them.
Politics can get in the way of safety measures, too.
A fact sheet produced by President Donald Trump’s campaign team on Sept. 25, 2016, described the food safety system as “inspection overkill” and called out USDA and FDA regulations as “too strict.” Under the Trump administration, the USDA’s discretionary budget has been dropping steadily, hitting its lowest level since 1988. The administration’s 2020 budget proposal requests $20.8 billion for the USDA, a $3.6 billion decrease from what the 2019 budget proposed.
Because of budgetary strains, 35% of the “temporary inspectors” that the FSIS hired in 2014 to oversee poultry ended up actually overseeing beef, according to a FOIA request from April 2014. Training for poultry inspections is vastly different from training for beef inspections, Baker said, because the pathogens are different. But it costs less to train a poultry inspector.
According to the USDA employee manual, these temporary employees should not be hired for more than 12 months. But because the USDA budget was cut, the agency was forced to shift lower-paid temps into positions previously held by career professionals.
USDA-approved slaughterhouse owners can also hire private inspectors for their businesses, noted Donna Elmore, who has worked on her family’s cattle farm for over 40 years. The facility pays for their inspector to be trained and certified by the USDA, and then that inspector doesn’t have to report back to the USDA as often and their findings can slip through the cracks.
It “really always seemed like you [the slaughterhouse] rely heavily on the USDA to do the right thing, and vice versa,” said Elmore.
Under any system, it’s impossible to detect and kill all dangerous strains of E. coli and salmonella before beef reaches America’s kitchens. But it’s hard to argue that the current inspection system is doing the best it can.
Last year, Americans consumed an average all-time high of 222 pounds of beef per person. Between the rising demand, critical funding cuts and missing oversight, that meat is being produced by an industrial complex that puts millions of consumers a year at risk of foodborne illness.