Original airdate: April 18, 2002
Written, Produced and Directed by
ANNOUNCER: The hamburger is as American as apple pie and much more popular.
FAST FOOD CLERK: Two jumbo meals.
FAST FOOD CLERK: Let's do it, baby!
NARRATOR: The average American eats three a week. Once a simple meal, the hamburger today is anything but simple, and it has become the engine of a vastly changed meat industry.
MICHAEL POLLAN, "The New York Times": Meat doesn't come from a farm anymore. I'm here to tell you it comes from a factory.
ANNOUNCER: Many worry that these changes are putting our safety at risk.
ROBERT TAUXE, M.D., Centers for Disease Control: Industrialization of our meat supply opened up a conduit for salmonella, for camphylobacter, for E. coli 0157 infections.
NANCY DONLEY, Mother of E. coli Victim: My son, Alex, died a brutal death from eating contaminated hamburger.
ANNOUNCER: What have we forsaken for the convenience and low price of our meat today?
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN, Consumer Federation of America: People like to say America's had the safest food in the world. The evidence is that it's not safe enough.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight a FRONTLINE investigation of Modern Meat.
PROTESTERS: USDA, filthy meat should go away! USDA, filthy meat should go away!
NARRATOR: Last month, consumer advocates and victims of food poisoning marched on Washington to proclaim that America's meat supply is in jeopardy.
E.COLI VICTIM: I was a victim of food-borne disease. When the ordeal was over, I had lost my spleen, my hair, a boyfriend, a normal immune system, and a semester of college.
PROTESTERS: -dirty meat has got to go! Hey, hey, ho, ho, dirty meat has got to go!~
NARRATOR: Each year, an estimated one in four Americans suffers an important bout of food poisoning, at least a third attributed to contaminated meat.
FATHER OF E.COLI VICTIM: And this is my son, Kevin. A little over one month after this picture was taken on a family vacation, Kevin died.
PROTESTER: What do we want?
PROTESTERS: Clean meat!
PROTESTER: When do we want it?
NARRATOR: Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America, an organizer of the protest, says not enough attention is paid to the safety of our meat supply.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: Five thousand deaths a year attributed to food poisoning from common bacteria. Many of those are traced to meat and poultry products. I'd say that's not acceptable.
NARRATOR: Are these people right? Is our nation's meat supply at risk? The evidence to answer to that question is analyzed here, at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
CDC TEAM MEMBER: They've contacted all the hospitals and ERs in the Abilene region and they are asking people to report in with bloody diarrhea, which is how they've identified a couple of these cases. And so I think they-
NARRATOR: This is the CDC's "war room" for food-borne illness.
CDC TEAM MEMBER: The big one was ground beef. In their sort of random testing of ground beef had- salmonella senftenberg was the number-one isolate.
NARRATOR: Each Tuesday, a team of health professionals meets to examine reports of illness from around the country. In the early stages, these cases are medical mysteries.
CDC TEAM MEMBER: -a fairly small outbreak, more diarrheal than vomiting, but no etiology known.
NARRATOR: Some outbreaks are spread out across the country. Others are found in clusters.
CDC TEAM MEMBER: This is the outbreak that occurred during the step dance competition in Pennsylvania. I don't have a whole lot more information. They still don't know the etiology.
NARRATOR: Case by case, the team pieces together reports of illness, trying to diagnose their cause and hoping to stop them from spreading.
CDC TEAM MEMBER: Basically, there were 2,000 step dancers. And they did their dancing and were actually sick on stage, apparently. I mean, it was- [laughter] It was actually- the winner actually vomited on the dance floor.
NARRATOR: Dr. Robert Tauxe heads the food-borne illness division at the CDC.
Dr. ROBERT TAUXE: When most public health officials are taught about food-borne outbreaks, they're usually taught about a church social or a wedding reception, where a whole group of people in one place become ill at the same time. We're seeing now that there's another kind of food-borne outbreak which is more subtle, but in fact, has much wider ramifications.
CDC TEAM MEMBER: All right, first one- E. coli in Oregon.
CDC TEAM MEMBER: This is a confirmed E. coli outbreak in Oregon. However, the-
Dr. ROBERT TAUXE: And this occurs when a food gets contaminated that is distributed to all of the continental United States. And so what happens is that people fall ill at about the same time, but all over the country.
CDC TEAM MEMBER: California, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona are all contributing cases.
NARRATOR: The CDC's food-borne outbreak team has been on vigilant alert ever since 1993, when the country suffered one of its most devastating outbreaks of food poisoning.
NEWSCASTER: Twelve days after the infection first appeared, contaminated meat has been traced to Jack in the Box restaurants in Washington state, Idaho, Nevada, and now possibly California. More than 200 people-
NARRATOR: In winter of 1993, hamburgers from Jack in the Box were contaminated with a relatively unknown bacteria that made hundreds of people sick, most of them children.
MOTHER OF E.COLI VICTIM: Everything's a statistic. All I know is that my daughter's sick, and I want her well.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: The West Coast E. coli outbreak in 1993 changed the public view of food-borne illness. Before that, it was bellyache. Now it was little children dying terrible deaths. When you have a mother stand there and say, "First my child's lungs failed and then the kidneys, and then the heart and the brain," I don't know anybody who can live- who can not be touched by that kind of story.
MOTHER OF E.COLI VICTIM: My 9-year-old daughter is in critical condition. It seems at this point to be moment by moment, day by day.
NARRATOR: In the end, nearly 700 people became sick and 4 children died.
Dr. ROBERT TAUXE: That was a devastating outbreak. That was a huge outbreak. There were a lot of cases. And once it was related to the hamburger from a particular fast food chain, that was- that was where an awful lot of us lived, and if we couldn't have confidence in taking our kids to have a hamburger at a fast food chain, what could we have confidence in?
NARRATOR: The Jack in the Box outbreak alerted the world to a new threat from a microscopic bacteria called E. coli 0157:H7. Microbiologist Glenn Morris.
GLENN MORRIS, Jr., M.D., University of Maryland: What is particularly devastating is that E. coli 0157:H7 is able to cause disease with very, very small numbers of microorganisms. As few as two or three bacteria are enough to cause human illness, which is really scary.
INTERVIEWER: Enough to kill someone?
Dr. GLENN MORRIS, Jr.: Enough to kill someone.
NARRATOR: Morris says that more than anything, the Jack in the Box outbreak exposed the dangers in the way modern meat is produced.
Dr. GLENN MORRIS, Jr.: E. coli is an organism that has sort of taken advantage of, if you will, the modern farming techniques.
Dr. ROBERT TAUXE: The new, highly industrialized way that we produce our food opened up new ecological homes for a number of bacteria, either on the farm, where animals might be together in much larger numbers than they used to be, or further down in the production chain.
NARRATOR: The first step to uncovering these modern health risks is to understand where meat comes from, in the first place. All burgers start the way they always have, here on the range. Unlike chicken or hogs, which can live their whole lives in man-made confinement, cattle begin life grazing.
DALE LASATER, Rancher: This beautiful grassland, which had the huge herds of buffalo, now have cattle.
NARRATOR: Dale Lasater is an old-school cattleman. His family has been ranching since 1882.
DALE LASATER: Well, we love our cows, and we think very highly of them. But basically, cattle are- are scavengers. The principal role of our cows is to convert these grasslands into human food, to eat those things which humans can't eat directly. So these cows can eat grasses and convert those to milk and meat. We can't do that
MICHAEL POLLAN, "The New York Times": A cow out on grass is just an incredible thing to behold.
NARRATOR: Michael Pollan, a writer for The New York Times, recently investigated how cattle are raised today. He says he was surprised to learn how little time modern cattle spend grazing on grass.
MICHAEL POLLAN: I went into this story thinking, "Well, that's how we get meat." But alas, it's not true.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, by the time a modern American beef cow is six months old, it has seen its last blade of grass for the rest of its life.
NARRATOR: To see how much raising cattle has changed, there is no clearer view than from the air.
MIKE CALLICRATE, Cattleman: This is the ConAgra feedlot in Yuma, Colorado. It's the biggest- might be the biggest feed yard in the country. It's got to be over 100,000 cattle at full capacity.
NARRATOR: Each of these tiny specks is a cow.
MIKE CALLICRATE: This is a highly confined and intensive sort of an operation, a lot of cattle.
NARRATOR: In the 1950s, the American beef industry started changing the basic diet of cattle. Instead of grass, cattle were moved into feedlots and fed primarily corn. This change has had enormous effects.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Why do we do this? It makes them grow much more quickly. And time is money in capitalism. So we've taken cows that we used to let grow to be 4 or 5 years old before we eat them, we've got it down to 14 months, and we're heading toward 11 months.
BILL HAW, Feedlot Operator: The goal of the feedlot is really to increase the efficiency with which the animal goes from 700 or 800 pounds to 1,200 or 1,300 hundred pounds.
NARRATOR: Bill Haw runs one of the country's largest feedlot operations. He says feeding cattle a high-energy ration of corn instead of grass gives meat the taste Americans love.
BILL HAW: Marbling occurs to a much greater extent with a high-energy ration. And marbling, which is the internal fat in the beef itself, is really what drives the flavor and the tenderness and the juiciness to a great extent.
INTERVIEWER: The flavor's in the fat.
BILL HAW: The flavor is in the fat. My guess is that could you interview a steer and ask him whether he'd rather be out in the pasture or in the feedlot, I think the vast majority of them would vote to be in the feedlot.
INTERVIEWER: In the feedlot?
BILL HAW: Yes.
BILL HAW: Well, a very nutritious and very palatable diet is delivered to them upon demand. If health problems come up, which do, they're treated immediately. And all their wants and needs are really taken care of in a very pampered sort of a way.
MICHAEL POLLAN: The problem with this system is that cows are not evolved to digest corn. It creates all sorts of problems for them. The rumen was designed for grass. And corn is just too rich, too starchy. So as soon as you introduce corn, the animal is liable to get sick.
NARRATOR: Pollan says that it's not just the diet but the conditions of a feedlot that make it more likely cattle will get sick.
MICHAEL POLLAN: A feedlot is a city of cows. It's cattle pens, black earth as far as you can see. Of course, it's not really earth, you learn as you get a little closer, it's manure. I mean, they're standing around in their manure all day long. When they go to sleep, that's what they lie down in. They're forced to exist with their feces all the time.
Dr. GLENN MORRIS, Jr.: Cows tend to produce feces. Those bacteria are spread around. There's ample opportunity for bacteria to be spread from one cow to the next. In larger feedlots, there's a greater chance for passing the microorganism back and forth. All of that contributes to spread of the microorganism such as E. coli 0157:H7.
NARRATOR: No one knows exactly where the E. coli bacteria that infected the Jack in the Box hamburger originated, but one study estimates as many as one quarter of all cattle in feedlots have the dangerous E. coli in their gut.
To control diseases in large feedlots, the meat industry uses massive amounts of antibiotics, including low doses mixed in the feed that help animals grow faster. At least half of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in meat production. But scientists fear this is creating serious problems for cattle and for humans.
Dr. GLENN MORRIS, Jr.: Because of the large amounts of antibiotics we're using, we are developing increasingly resistant microorganisms. And we are reducing our ability, as physicians, to treat patients who come in to us with infections.
NARRATOR: The World Health Organization has declared antibiotic resistance one of the three top threats to public health.
BILL HAW, Feedlot Operator: I don't think there is any hard evidence that- that that immunity is transferred to humans. But the possibility of it is- is an awesome thing.
[www.pbs.org: More about antibiotics and meat]
NARRATOR: Feedlots are the first stage of industrialized meat production. The next, meat packing, is even more centralized. Today, four giant companies control 84 percent of the beef market. The industry has consolidated because profit margins are razor-thin, so size does matter. This concentration has had some positive results. Consumers pay 30 percent less for meat now than they did in 1970.
DAN GLICKMAN, Secretary of Agriculture 1995-2001: Americans pay a lower per capita cost for food of all types than any place else in the world.
NARRATOR: Dan Glickman, a former secretary of agriculture, believes the biggest issue in agriculture today is how highly centralized production has become.
DAN GLICKMAN: Mass industrialization and standardization probably can insure quality control better because somebody's watching the product at all stages of the scheme. On the other hand, if there is a problem that develops, that problem becomes a much more monumental and significant problem if that problem will infect thousand of animals, let's say, as opposed to one or two isolated animals. So even though I think the systems are better today, the risks are probably greater, as well.
NARRATOR: The meat-packing business has always been tough and the work bloody. One industry insider calls this the opposite of Henry Ford's assembly line because these are massive disassembly lines.
BILL HAW: The slaughterhouse is a necessary process. It's a highly efficient process. But it's not now nor never will be a very pretty thing. Animals come there to die, to be eviscerated, to be decapitated, to be de-hided. And all of those are violent, bloody and difficult things to watch.
NARRATOR: Today the largest packing plants slaughter more than 4,000 cattle a day. One measure of their efficiency is "line speed," the rate the carcass moves through the plant. In 1970 the fastest lines were butchering 175 cattle an hour. Today the rate has more than doubled. This is one of the most dangerous parts of production because here is where pathogens that are in the cow can get on the meat.
ERIC SCHLOSSER, Author, "Fast Food Nation": When workers are working very quickly, they may make mistakes. It's that speed of production that can lead to food safety problems.
NARRATOR: Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, a best-selling expose on the meat and fast food industry. He says conditions in the packing plant have a direct effect on food safety.
ERIC SCHLOSSER: Well, these people are handling the meat that you're going to eat. If they're dropping the meat on the ground, picking it up and putting it back on the line, if they're not properly eviscerating the animal and they're spilling manure, if they're making a whole series of mistakes that can contaminate the meat, that matters to you, if you eat meat.
ROBERT TAUXE, M.D., Centers for Disease Control: As the line speeds increased, as the general efficiency of the slaughter plants increased, there may have been a greater opportunity for contamination to spread from one carcass to another, so that the end result would be more meat that might be contaminated.
NARRATOR: The final stage of the heavily industrialized production of the American hamburger is a grinding plant like this one. Raw meat arrives in 2,000-pound boxes from the slaughterhouse and is mixed together by the ton.
MARK ANDERSEN, Food Production Expert, Jack in the Box: This is a combo bin of meat. A combo bin is 2,000 pounds, approximately of, meat that's coming in from a boning facility, where they take it off the carcass and put it into here. This is a combo bin of lean meat. As you can see, a lot of red, not a lot of white. We mix that with combo bins of fat to come up with our final level of fat.
NARRATOR: The meat in these boxes comes from many different animals and many different places. Some is even from overseas. All of it is ground together to make the juicy hamburger Americans love.
MARK ANDERSEN: If we just took the lean meat and made a hamburger patty with it, we would have a patty that didn't have a lot of flavor with it. The flavor comes from the fat. The white tube is the fat, the red tube is the lean.
INTERVIEWER: So your recipe is basically 20 pounds of fat and 20 pounds of lean?
MARK ANDERSEN: Well, yes, primarily. Except that in our case, it's 2,000 pounds of fat and 2,000 pounds of this to make up our 4,300-pound batches you see here.
NARRATOR: Hamburger used to be the scraps left over from butchering just one cow, but a significant change has occurred. Now parts of many cows are blended together by the ton.
Dr. ROBERT TAUXE: If we take the meat from one animal and grind it up and make ground beef from just one animal, we're including only the bacteria from one animal. But if we take the meat from a thousand different animals and grind that together, we're pooling the bacteria from a thousand different animals, as well.
INTERVIEWER: So explain this to me. How many different cows would be in one burger?
Dr. ROBERT TAUXE: Well, I suspect that there are hundreds or even thousands of animals that have contributed to a single hamburger.
NARRATOR: Robert Tauxe says this mixing together of so many different animals has opened up new ways to spread illness, a lesson clearly learned, he says, from the Jack in the Box disaster.
Dr. ROBERT TAUXE: The problem, fundamentally, was that the ground beef somehow was contaminated with E. coli 0157 back at the grinding plant, presumably because one or more animals came through that was heavily contaminated.
MICHAEL POLLAN, "The New York Times": The story of this pathogen, though, really illustrates the ecological links between the health of these animals and the health of us. When you bring everything together and you make it really big and you mix up microbes from all these different places in the feedlot and then in the hamburger, and then it spans out to, you know, millions of people, that's a petri dish for food poisoning. That's an environment in which microbes can thrive and spread. It's the best thing that ever happened to microbes.
NARRATOR: Another lesson from the Jack in the Box outbreak was that the federal meat inspection system, based on laws written nearly a hundred years ago, was dangerously out of date.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN, Consumer Federation of America: The Jack in the Box case exposed the fact that a law written in 1906 was trying to regulate an industry that was very, very different. We grow food differently and we process it differently. You and I eat differently than people did in 1906. And the meat inspection program hadn't changed at all.
NARRATOR: Government meat inspection, designed to prevent food-borne illness, began in 1906 after Upton Sinclair wrote his famous book, The Jungle. That book revealed terrible conditions in slaughterhouses and outraged the nation. Teddy Roosevelt vowed to put a stop to it by mandating that every carcass would be inspected by a federal employee, the USDA meat inspector.
Since then, the Department of Agriculture has watched over the meat supply by checking every carcass to see if it was diseased. That system was nicknamed the "poke and sniff" method. But as the meat industry changed, so did the health risks, necessitating a change in the way inspectors go about their business.
GLENN MORRIS, Jr., M.D., University of Maryland: What they're doing is sitting there watching the carcasses whiz by. They're looking for problems. And yet what we've come to recognize is that the problems are, in almost all instances, problems that they can's see. What we're really interested in is trying to increase the overall safety of the food supply. Old-style inspection just simply didn't get at the issues. It didn't get at the problem.
NARRATOR: Ironically, it was a part of the industry itself that first went after those problems. In 1993, reeling from the E. coli crisis, Jack in the Box executives decided that to guarantee safe meat, they could not rely just on the USDA, but would also have to inspect the meat themselves.
DAVE THENO, Jack in the Box: The E. coli outbreak changed the company, and to some extent food safety in this country, forever.
NARRATOR: At the height of the E. coli crisis, Jack in the Box hired Dave Theno, an expert on food safety, to change the company's entire approach to handling meat.
DAVE THENO: We changed a number of practices and procedures in restaurants. We installed something called a HACCP system. HACCP is an acronym for H-A-it's H-A-C-C-P. It stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. It actually is a food safety management system that, prior to that time, had never been fully installed in a restaurant.
ROBERT TAUXE, M.D., Centers for Disease Control: It was developed by rocket scientists. Actually, it is rocket science. It was developed at NASA, when the engineers who were preparing for the long space voyages to the moon and back felt that it would be total disaster if there was a outbreak of food-borne illness on board the Apollo shots. I think an astronaut with diarrhea would- you don't want an astronaut with diarrhea!
NARRATOR: This new HACCP quality control system is now used in making every Jack in the Box burger. With HACCP, problem areas where contamination can occur are identified and then monitored. Much of it is common sense. Are the burgers being cooked thoroughly? Are cutting surfaces clean? Are the cooling temperatures correct? Are employees wearing safety clothes?
DAVE THENO: Are the products protected from things? Are bone collection devices working right? Controlling from source all the way through production in their plants.
NARRATOR: Some of the systems are very high-tech, like microbial testing for E. coli and other dangerous pathogens here at this Jack in the Box grinding plant.
MARK ANDERSEN: Every 15 minutes, we pull patties to check for E. coli 0157:H7. By doing that, we have a 95percent confidence that we're going to find one cell in 125 grams of product. It doesn't mean that it's not there, it just means that we can find it down to that level. And it makes me sleep better at night, knowing that I can at least find it to there.
DAVE THENO: Testing is difficult, but testing for microbes is actually a report card on how you're really doing. If you don't test you, don't know how effective you are in doing these things. You have to test to make sure that your systems have been effective.
NARRATOR: It was this point, the importance of testing, which became the central issue in the national debate over meat safety.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: We had to stop using 70- and 80-year-old methods of testing meat when we knew that we had kids out there getting sick.
NARRATOR: In the wake of the Jack in the Box outbreak, the Department of Agriculture decided to change the ways meat was inspected. In the proposed regulations, microbial testing would be required and, for the first time, companies would be held responsible if their meat was contaminated with deadly E. coli or salmonella.
DAN GLICKMAN, Secretary of Agriculture 1995-2001: Well, the new regulations require a lot more of scientific testing to determine if pathogens or if germs are in meat-packing plants.
NARRATOR: Testing for salmonella contamination was a key requirement of the new regulations.
DAN GLICKMAN: First of all, salmonella causes more food-borne illness every year than any other food-borne pathogen does. And so this is not a hypothetical problem. Second of all, salmonella is often an indicator or a marker for other food-borne problems or sanitation problems. So if you've got incidences of salmonella in some plant, it may mean- not always, but it may mean other, more serious problems.
Dr. GLENN MORRIS, Jr.: It caused quite a firestorm. That was a major change.
NARRATOR: Glenn Morris was part of the USDA team proposing the strict new regulations.
Dr. GLENN MORRIS, Jr.: Now, the companies, needless to say, weren't too happy about that.
NARRATOR: The American meat industry is an $80 billion-a-year business that wields considerable influence on Capitol Hill. The industry adamantly opposed the salmonella testing, and to fight it they convinced a key committee chairman to introduce an amendment to de-fund parts of the USDA's meat inspection office.
J. Patrick Boyle heads the industry's most powerful lobbying organization, the American Meat Institute. He says they weren't against changing the regulations, they just wanted the USDA to listen more carefully to their complaints about salmonella testing.
J. PATRICK BOYLE, CEO, American Meat Institute: I think there's a principle here. It's not the beef industry that is fighting standards that are meaningful, that improve the wholesomeness of the product. The beef industry has reservations about unscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of our products.
ERIC SCHLOSSER, Author, "Fast Food Nation": I think what the industry's saying is they don't want to be held accountable for the product that they're selling. And they resist- they resisted the testing of E. coli 0157:H7. When the government announced it was going test for this bug that could kill children, the meat-packing industry sued the USDA in federal court. So you have to go back and look at a pattern of behavior. This industry has fought against food safety inspection for a hundred years.
NARRATOR: But in the fight over the new safety regulations, there was one force the meat industry could not overcome, the lobbying power of the parents whose children died in the Jack in the Box disaster.
NANCY DONLEY, Mother of E. coli Victim: I don't want anyone -another child to have to suffer what my son suffered and the that grief my husband and I walk through every single day.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: The parents of the E. coli victims were very effective. They have continued to effective. The industry has lots of money, but these people have a story that it is hard to reject.
NARRATOR: In the end, the USDA prevailed. And beginning in 1996, the new regulations went into effect. But they were based on a compromise. The government got the new mandatory HACCP system, including new testing procedures, but the meat industry got control over how it was designed and implemented in their plants.
ERIC SCHLOSSER: The introduction of HACCP was part of a bargain that was made. Meat-packing companies were given more power over the food safety practices and techniques in their plants, and inspectors were pulled back from the line. And in return, the USDA was supposed to receive much more power for testing and for holding these companies accountable.
NARRATOR: But the transition to the new HACCP system and the sharing of responsibilities for safety between the meat industry and the USDA inspectors has not always been smooth.
PATSY McKEE, Former USDA Inspector: In theory, yes, HACCP is- is great.
NARRATOR: Patsy McKee was a USDA inspector for 15 years in southern California, earning high ratings in her performance reviews. After the new regulations came in, McKee says some companies became more aggressive in challenging her authority.
PATSY McKEE: The whole purpose of HACCP is that they take the responsibility. They find their own solutions. But when we, as inspectors, went in there - I went in - you know, and documented that there were problems and that they weren't taking care of their responsibility, then, you know, they went after me.
NARRATOR: At one company, Global Food, McKee says, conditions were dangerously unsafe.
PATSY McKEE: I saw dead roaches and insects, I saw direct product contamination. I saw moldy product. I saw just filth. I saw the refrigeration units leaking, the condensation. I saw the freezer had ice build-up from the floor. The water dripping from there could have listeria.
NARRATOR: Listeria is one of the most deadly food-borne bacteria, responsible for as many as 500 deaths a year. Global Food, along with other companies, complained to the USDA about McKee. So did the National Meat Association, who put pressure on McKee's bosses at the USDA, insisting that she be removed. Fred Hunter is the owner of Global Food.
FRED HUNTER, Global Food: I would say, in my 50 years in the industry, she's probably the- I can't think of the proper word- probably the least professional of any inspector I've ever had.
INTERVIEWER: In what way?
FRED HUNTER: Just doing her job and getting along with the people, getting along with me, getting along with the company.
ELEANOR HALVERSTADT, Former USDA Supervisor: My feeling, when I was there, that some of the plants, they did not want her. As far as being a good inspector, she did a good job, as far as compliance, looking at it.
NARRATOR: Eleanor Halverstadt, a 30-year veteran of the USDA, was the official in charge of enforcing the new regulations in California.
ELEANOR HALVERSTADT: When she had a problem at a plant and she would shut them down, we would send compliance in there to see to see if her actions justified shutting down that plant. In every incident, they did and- but life is they don't like to be shut down. That's money to these people.
NARRATOR: Elsa Murano is the undersecretary of Agriculture for food safety in the Bush administration.
INTERVIEWER: Given how contentious it can be in certain plants, does it make sense to have moved towards a regulatory system that gives companies more authority over the inspection process?
ELSA MURANO, Ph.D., Undersecretary of Agriculture: The HACCP system does not give the plants any authority, responsibility. The authority is ours. We're the ones with the authority. We shut down plants all the time. Last year alone, we took about 200 enforcement actions in plants in the United States, so we very much have the authority to do that. Our inspectors have the authority to do- to follow the regulations and enforce them on a daily basis.
NARRATOR: But the office of inspector general for the Department of Agriculture audited the new safety system and found that because of poor implementation, the USDA "had reduced its oversight beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer."
ELSA MURANO: The problem, if there's any problems, is with any organization, when you implement something new, certainly there's some- there's some steps you take. There's a little bit of growing pains.
NARRATOR: Patsy McKee feels that her job was one of those "growing pains," and she says her USDA bosses didn't back her up. When they tried to reassign her, she refused and was fired.
ELEANOR HALVERSTADT: They wanted to reassign her across the United States, from California to Iowa. Now, logic would say, you now, that's one good way to get rid of her because she's married, she has children. Why would somebody that's been in California all her life end up in the middle of Iowa on a night shift?
NARRATOR: Patsy McKee sued the USDA for discrimination and received a financial settlement. She also won three quarters of a million dollars in a libel suit against Fred Hunter of Global Food. Last August, Global Food recalled dangerous meat products after it was discovered they were contaminated with listeria, one of the microbes McKee was most worried about.
PATSY McKEE: I don't apologize for going in there and doing my job and documenting like they asked me to, taking the corrective action that they asked me to, that they trained me to do.
NARRATOR: Despite complaints from its inspectors, the USDA thinks that today there are strong signs the new regulations they implemented six years ago are working.
ELSA MURANO: If you look at the evidence, we know since the implementation of this new system, the HACCP system, there's been a reduction in the salmonella levels in ground beef of 44 percent just over the last very short years.
NARRATOR: But the new testing system also revealed new problems. As the regulations went into effect, the amount of contaminated meat that had to be recalled rose dramatically. Last year alone, the USDA reported 163 recalls for microbial contamination totaling over 100 million pounds of meat.
NEWSCASTER: IBP is recalling nearly 300,000 pounds of ground beef this morning. Some of the beef may have been contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The beef was shipped to at least 19 states, and most of it may have already been consumed.
NARRATOR: But many worry there are flaws in the recall system.
DAN GLICKMAN: Believe it or not, in this modern world, the USDA, which is the regulatory authority, cannot order the recall of contaminated meat from around the country.
PATRICK BOYLE, CEO, American Meat Institute: The government does not have mandatory recall authority because they've never really needed it. USDA, In their 100 years of regulating the meat industry, cannot point to a single instance where at their suggestion a company refused to initiate a voluntary recall.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN, Consumer Federation of America: But they delay. And if you say, "I've got ground beef," and somebody says, "Yeah, how do you know? How much do I have to recall? How do you know it was that lot and this lot," and you delay five days or six days, 30 percent of it's gone, and the company never gets that back. Somebody ate it, and they got paid for it.
NARRATOR: A recent study by the federal government shows that when a recall is issued, on average, less than 25 percent of the meat is ever recovered, leading many to say that government needs mandatory recall authority.
DAN GLICKMAN: In most cases, the food industry will do it because the USDA will go out and do a press release and saying, "This product is contaminated with E. coli or salmonella, and we want it back." And then the companies will act as fast as they can do that because if they don't, they're nuts. They face bankruptcy, total liability.
But in some cases, it's harder for them to do this than it is for the government, just with its resources. So its a big gap in the law. And you can see now, if you had food that was, let's say, contaminated with bioterrorism or some sort of nefarious activity, you'd want the government to have the power to order the recall of contaminated food.
NARRATOR: Perhaps the biggest new threat to food safety to emerge in the last decade is globalization. The trade in agricultural products across national borders has increased dramatically, including both live animals and meat.
These cattle are crossing the border from Mexico to the United States.
WALTER HOWE, M.D.: Do you hear her, that breathing noise? We got a sick one, so we're going to mark it.
NARRATOR: Dr. Walter Howe and this team are the last line of defense at the border.
Dr. WALTER HOWE: See, she's sick. That's why her- why she's making so much noise through her lungs.
NARRATOR: Last year, millions of cattle and four billion pounds of meat were imported.
Dr. WALTER HOWE: We'll cut that one out. And hopefully, that minimizes the amount of tuberculosis that enters the United States.
NARRATOR: Howe and these USDA inspectors are on the Mexican side of the border, checking each cow for signs of illness, including the dangerous "Mad Cow Disease," which affects humans, and foot and mouth disease, which could wipe out American cattle herds. After examination, the cattle - up to 4,000 on some days at this crossing - are sent into a pesticide bath.
Dr. WALTER HOWE: The animals are given a precautionary dipping, which is the animals have to swim through a solution of pesticide. They swim through that on the Mexican side.
NARRATOR: All of these cattle will be shipped from here to the massive feedlots in the U.S. If just one has foot and mouth disease, the entire feedlot - or more - could be devastated.
The risks are not just theoretical, as the former inspector general of the USDA, Roger Viadero, discovered last year.
ROGER VIADERO, Former USDA Inspector General: We found a shipment of 650,000 pounds of product from an embargoed country, embargoed because of foot and mouth disease, produced after the embargo date. We know that because the country and the date of production is on the box that it's shipped in. So 650,000 pounds of this product is found in the heartland of America by a meat inspector.
NARRATOR: The USDA requires that foreign countries also use the new HACCP inspection system, but in another investigation, Viadero found that, in many cases, that inspection process was inadequate. In a 1999 USDA audit of Mexican meat plants, 32 percent failed, including this one. Those plants, however, were allowed to resume exporting meat after Mexican officials simply reassured the U.S. that the problems had been fixed.
ROGER VIADERO: And what we sampled, as office of inspector general, was, in fact, that they were just taking many of the countries' word on it. That's not good enough. That's not good enough for Americans.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean, they were just taking countries' words on it?
ROGER VIADERO: If the country said they met equivalency standards, they were meeting equivalency standards.
NARRATOR: While the meat supply is under constant attacks from pathogens both foreign and domestic, even potentially from bio-terrorism, the meat industry is confident that their increasingly sophisticated technology will be a major force in minimizing these threats. Since the Jack in the Box outbreak there has been a multi-million dollar push towards food safety.
1st SALESMAN: Automized and robots-
2nd SALESMAN: -carcass washes instead of car washes-
3rd SALESMAN: -a product that screens for pathogens in food products.
NARRATOR: The big companies especially spend big money to improve safety. And they have. Carcasses are now washed and even steam-cleaned to get rid of bacteria.
BILL HAW, Feedlot Operator: I believe that the United States has the safest food supply of any nation in the world. And to a great extent, that's been enhanced by the consolidation, so that you have large entities that are able to concentrate, that are able to spend the money on sanitation devices and practices, and have the capitalization to be willing to focus on it.
NARRATOR: One of the technologies the industry is pushing is irradiation. They believe it would insure the safety of ground beef from almost all pathogens.
4th SALESMAN: We're serving meatballs a la Luigi, which are irradiated for your safety and to take care of the microbes inside.
CHIP COLONNA, IBA VP - Perishable Foods: Irradiation is probably the most tested food process in history.
4th SALESMAN: We take the meat that we use for our meatballs for a short period of time, expose it to a little bit of radiant energy. It attacks the microbes that are lurking inside the meat, making it perfectly safe!
CHIP COLONNA: It has been tested and endorsed by the FDA, the USDA, the World Health organization, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association. There's plenty of evidence and studies that have been done over a period of 40, 50 years to show that irradiation has no ill effects.
NARRATOR: Still, there are concerns that the public will not accept irradiated meat.
J. PATRICK BOYLE: Some consumers and retailers, and frankly, some beef companies, are concerned about the market response to that technology. But today there are only two steps or technologies that we know will eliminate the E. coli in beef, and that's cooking it properly when we handle the food or irradiating it before we purchase the food.
[www.pbs.org: Read his interview]
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN, Consumer Federation of America: I'm not opposed to irradiating ground beef. If I were supplying a nursing home, I'd probably make sure that the meat came in irradiated. My concern is that I don't want a system that says you can have fecal matter all over it and then irradiate it. Irradiated poop won't make you sick, but it's still poop.
NARRATOR: It has now been nearly a decade since the Jack in the Box outbreak and the new emphasis on food safety regulation and testing. Every day, lab tests from food-borne illnesses around the country are fed into the CDC's central computer and analyzed. And while there is no hard evidence that the number of deaths has decreased in the 1990s, Dr. Robert Tauxe is cautiously optimistic.
ROBERT TAUXE, M.D., Center for Disease Control: We have seen a modest decrease in the salmonella infections in this country that are- is happening at about the same time that HACCP has been coming into place in the slaughter plants. I can't know for certain that this decrease is related to HACCP. But after years and years of an increase in salmonella, to start seeing a decrease is an important change. And it suggests to me that we've begun moving in the right direction.
ERIC SCHLOSSER, Author, "Fast Food Nation": The improvements, I think, are due to the fact that these companies were finally being held accountable by something that could be measured - the amount of salmonella in their meat - and they knew if they failed their tests, they may face closure. I think a great deal of that accountability has been lost.
PROTESTERS: USDA, filthy meat should go away! USDA, make safer beef today!
NARRATOR: And that's what brought these protesters to the streets of Washington last month. They were angry about a recent court decision which they believe undercuts the effectiveness of the USDA's testing program, the case Supreme Beef versus the Department of Agriculture.
Three times, Supreme Beef, a hamburger meat-grinding plant in Texas, failed a series of tests for salmonella contamination, once with nearly 50 percent of its meat contaminated. Instead of complying with the new standards, they sued the USDA.
ERIC SCHLOSSER: And this wasn't just any ground beef plant. This was a ground beef plant that was supplying as much as 45 percent of the meat for the national school lunch program. I mean, this meat was going to be sold and served to kids.
NARRATOR: The Supreme Beef suit was supported by the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute. AMI's Patrick Boyle says there was a principle involved.
J. PATRICK BOYLE: Salmonella on a raw, uncooked product is not in and of itself a public health risk. The salmonella performance standard has no scientific underpinnings. It has no relevance, in terms of the wholesomeness of the product or the cleanliness of the facility.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: What I really don't understand about Patrick Boyle's argument is that 95 to 98 percent of the plants tested for salmonella passed on the first test. Everybody in the industry passed this test. Why is Patrick Boyle defending the bottom dwellers, who would take no steps to meet a stand that wasn't very high? Why is he defending them?
INTERVIEWER: If your goal is to- as you said, to improve the quality and the safety of the meat, why fight this case?
J. PATRICK BOYLE: The goal is to produce safe product in clean facilities. We do that. What the court concluded is that just because you have salmonella in raw, uncooked ground beef in no way suggests, as a raw, uncooked product, that it's adulterated or that the plant that's producing it is unsanitary.
[www.pbs.org: Take a closer look at this case]
NARRATOR: In December, the 5th circuit court of appeals ruled in favor of Supreme Beef, saying the USDA could not shut down a plant solely based on the salmonella tests.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: This last week, the 5th circuit court of appeals gutted the nation's meat safety laws like a slaughterhouse guts a steer.
NANCY DONLEY, Mother of E. coli Victim: The fifth circuit court's ruling I just think pounded another nail into my son's coffin in its ruling supporting the industry's lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture. It basically states that it's OK to ship the public salmonella-laced burgers. And I just find that to be just incredibly, incredibly discouraging in this day and age, when we should be moving forward with food safety and strengthening the safety of our food, that we're taking a giant step backwards.
INTERVIEWER: Will the USDA appeal Supreme Beef?
ELSA MURANO, Ph.D., Undersecretary of Agriculture: We don't have plans at this time to do that. The Supreme Beef decision is one that, when we looked at it, it did not take away our authority to enforce our regulations. We still can shut down plants, and we have been since the Supreme decision came out in December.
PROTESTERS: USDA, make safer meat today!
NARRATOR: With the Bush administration declaring that they will not appeal the Supreme Beef case, supporters of the salmonella testing standards are now taking their case to Congress. Meanwhile, the American consumer is left to wonder what all of this will mean for the safety of the meat supply.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN, Consumer Federation of America: None of us really know how safe the meat supply is. We do know that there are still 76 million cases of food-borne illness every year, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. So the meat supply may be safer than it was 10 years ago, but it sure isn't safe enough.
WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
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T. Michael Coleman
The Criterion Collection
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ANNOUNCER: There's more about modern meat on our Web site, including tips for consumers on how to shop wisely and cook safely, facts and stats on food-borne illness outbreaks, a collection of scientists' studies and views about using antibiotics in meat animals, a Web exclusive report on the political clout of the meat industry, and a way to find out on our Web site if this FRONTLINE report will be shown again on your PBS station and when. Then join the discussion at PBS on line, pbs.org, or write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to this address [Dear FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]
Next time on FRONTLINE: As a teenage bride, Ileana accused her husband of an unspeakable crime.
FRANK: They accuse me for molesting their children.
ILEANA: Frank was kissing his butt [inaudible]
ANNOUNCER: And serving 165 years. But now she tells a different story.
ILEANA: I'm willing to fight for justice and for the truth, and this [inaudible]
ANNOUNCER: Did Daddy Do It? next time on FRONTLINE.
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