And meat might be?
I think meat, poultry, and eggs account for over half of that.
Why is it so difficult to figure out the hard numbers on food-borne
I think there are two or three reasons why it's been hard in the past to get
better figures. One is that with regard to salmonellosis and
campylobacteriosis, it was hard to trace back to what you'd eaten. Those
are not diseases that you come down with immediately after eating. The
incubation period can be as long as two weeks for these diseases. Do you
remember what you ate two weeks ago and where you ate it?
Another reason that the data wasn't good is that nobody cared. They
thought salmonellosis is just a bellyache. It wasn't one of those sexy things
that research scientists looked into or that public health officials spent much
The advent of E. coli 0157:H7 in the West Coast outbreak of E. coli in
hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993 changed that. When suddenly
you had children dying terrible deaths, then people began to recognize that it
was more than a bellyache, and it was worthwhile having good data.
What has made it much easier to get good data in recent years is that the CDC
has been able to use DNA typing of bacteria. So they take a culture from
someone who's gotten ill in St. Louis and compare it to someone who became ill
in Atlanta, and someone else in Wyoming. The bacteria will all have the same
DNA. That makes it possible to trace it back to the source.
How safe is the meat supply?
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, thousands of
hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths. We know people get sick from
cross-contamination that comes from contaminated meat. And they get sick from
meat that hasn't been cooked enough to kill the bacteria.
We know that people get listeriosis from meat that is packaged and cooked and
says "ready to eat" on it. We know that people get sick from campylobacter in
chickens. So the meat supply may be safer than it was 10 years ago, but it
sure isn't safe enough. ...
We talk about a high level of food-borne illness, and even of deaths related
to food-borne illness. But you're not hearing on the news about large
outbreaks. Where are the victims of food-borne illness?
Well, I know about them. The Chicago Tribune ran a four-part series a
couple of months ago about children who'd been made ill by contaminated food in
school lunches over a period of several years in Chicago. Three years ago you
had the Sizzler E.coli O157:H7 outbreak, where contaminated meat dripped on
fresh vegetables and one person died and a number were made ill.
There was the Ball Park Franks listeria outbreak three years ago, where 16
people died, and five women had babies that were born dead, because it was
fatal for fetuses. Those were really played rather prominently in the news
Do you support irradiating ground beef?
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. ...
There are some worker safety concerns with irradiation. There are some
environmental safety concerns. It's very expensive, and if it's not used
exactly right, it makes the meat taste really bad. Those last two are important
reasons why irradiation hasn't been adopted more widely. ...
How is the consumer to know what the good meat is and what the bad meat
One of the problems with the present system is that the consumer has no way to
tell what is bad meat. You can't see the disease-causing bacteria. And every
package of meat that's sold in the United States of America has a seal on it
that says, "Inspected and approved, United States Department of Agriculture."
The seal is there. You expect it to be clean and safe, and the truth is that
Tell me how the outbreak of E. coli in hamburgers at Jack in the Box in 1993
It changed the public view of food-borne illness. Before that it was bellyache;
now it was little children dying terrible deaths. And the Jack in the Box
outbreak exposed the fact that meat processing and consumer eating habits had
changed radically since the law [regulating the meat packing industry] was
passed in 1906. Second, it exposed the fact that the meat inspection system has
not changed a bit since 1906. We were using methods that were essentially a
century old in an industry that had changed radically.
Jack in the Box made changes in their safety procedures right away because
they were under fire, they were in chaos. Did the government look to
Jack in the Box and see what they had done? Were they inspired or influenced in
any way to put in new regulations by how they handled it ?
I think that government was impressed by the steps that Jack in the Box took,
because [the company] did something radical. They said, "We have
responsibility for controlling pathogens in raw meat. ... We want you to show
us that the pathogen level is kept at a reasonable rate." ... As a contractual
matter, they started holding the people who sell to them to a higher standard
of pathogen testing. We asked that that be built in to the government's
inspection system and to not just rely on private, contractual arrangements.
And so new regulations developed with this idea of objective,
New regulations were developed with the idea that there needed to be
some objective measures for determining whether or not a company was actually
producing a product that met a public health standard. ...
It used to be that the only person in a meat plant responsible for food safety
was the federal inspector, who was told: "You can't put the seal of inspection
on meat unless it's safe." Nothing in the law said that the meat plant owner
had a responsibility for producing a safe product. Now we've switched to
something called the Pathogen Reduction Hazard Analysis and Critical Control
Point method of inspection. It's known as HACCP for short. The company
now has responsibility for producing a safe product, and the role of the
inspector is to be sure that they follow the rules, to be there to make sure
nothing bad happens.
We don't know yet whether or not this system is going to work to produce safer
food. It appears to be working because tests done show that there is a decline
in disease-causing bacteria in the meat that's been tested. I think the key
element is whether we will continue to have some objective measure of whether
plants need a public health standard. The industry wants to get rid of those
objective measures. ... If you take that standard away, I think we will have
How do we guarantee that it's being done, that that standard is being
Under the present rule, federal inspectors take samples of meat from many
companies and test it to see how much salmonella is there. If it is above a
certain level, then it is clear that the plant is not operating at an
acceptable level -- that its HACCP program isn't doing what it was supposed to
If a plant fails the salmonella test, the Department of Agriculture says,
"We've got a problem, guys. You need to fix your HACCP program." And then
they come and test again. And if the plant fails a second time, the department
waits and goes back in and says, "You still need to make some changes here.
It's not working the way it's supposed to."
And then, after a while, they test them again. If the plant fails the third
time, the Department of Agriculture is supposed to withdraw inspection and
close that plant down, because it's clear that they either can't or won't meet
a public health goal.
However, in the one case where USDA did, in fact, try to close down a
plant, a federal court stepped in and said, "You know, the law never
anticipated this kind of testing." ... [As a result of that decision] there's a
real question about whether or not the department will be able to continue to
set and enforce limits on disease-causing bacteria in meat and poultry
But the company in Texas [Supreme Beef] that the USDA tried to close down had
20 percent of its product contaminated with salmonella. And a Federal District
Court judge said, "That's OK. You don't have the power to stop that." And the
United States Senate has now said, "We're not going to take the steps to make
sure the USDA has authority to close down that plant." So there are plants out
there with 20 percent and maybe greater amounts of their product contaminated
with salmonella bacteria. ...
How significant is the Supreme Beef decision?
It is hard to overrate its importance. It could be interpreted as saying there
is no amount of disease-causing bacteria in raw meat or poultry that would
cause it to violate the law. There is no amount that would make it unacceptable
for the USDA seal of approval. The court went back and quoted a decision that
is 30 years old, in which another court said [that] housewives and cooks are not
stupid, they know you have to cook meat and poultry. That completely ignores
the problem of cross-contamination.
I can take contaminated meat into my kitchen and cook it perfectly and still
get sick because contaminated meat contaminates everything it touches: the
counter, the cooking utensils, food that we may eat raw or that has already
been cooked. And the court ignored that. The court also ignored the fact that
today Americans spend over half of their food dollars eating out.
Now, neither the judge nor I can control what happens in the kitchen of a
restaurant where we eat. We have no control over what happens back there. And,
in fact, many cases of food-borne illness are traced to mishandling of
contaminated meat in a restaurant kitchen.
Supreme Beef went out of business. How does the case continue to go
Supreme Beef has filed for bankruptcy, first for reorganization, and now for
dissolution. And their company is not doing business now. Their argument to the
court has been, "The government put us out of business and you ought to
continue this case because if the court rules the government didn't have
authority to shut us down, then we will come back and sue the government for
Now, Supreme Beef was turning out product where sometimes as much as 20 percent
of it was contaminated with salmonella. They failed the government's test four
times. The USDA allowed them to continue producing for months before they tried
to shut them down. It was almost a year. And that company was the single
largest provider of ground beef to the school lunch program.
Now, why is the rest of the meat industry defending a company that was
certainly not one of its best performers, that did nothing for the reputation
of the industry, that did nothing to protect consumer confidence?
And the answer is?
I'd like to have an answer to that question. I have no idea. ...
You hear of companies making a lot of efforts to improve their safety
standards. But when you look at the details of those regulations, you see that
companies have to submit a HACCP plan, but the FSIS doesn't actually have to
approve it. So who knows whether the HACCP plan is a good one? You have
standards set for salmonella, yet many companies are able to get away with
breaking those. What good are these rules if there are so many loopholes in
The HACCP system was not designed to be part of a government regulatory
program. It wasn't set up to help government assure that food met some
minimum public health standard. It was set up to be an industry quality
assurance program. And it has worked very well for that purpose.
The proposal was made that it should become part of government inspection.
Consumer organizations originally would not support that. It looked like an
honor system to us. You're right, FSIS didn't approve the plan. And inspectors
were told, "Don't step in and change things. Let's see if the plant's going to
do it the right way." We were very uncomfortable with that.
The key change that was made that made it possible for us to support HACCP was
the creation of an objective measure. That what happened in a plant that had a
HACCP program would meet a public health standard.
We said to the department, "You have to show us that food coming off the end of
the line in a plant that has an HACCP program is cleaner, safer, and less
likely to cause food-borne illness than food that was produced in another
plant." And the department decided that that was a worthwhile provision here,
and set up this objective measure. That's the salmonella standard.
It was only a beginning point. We expected that it would be expanded and that
it would be tightened. Instead, what appears to be happening is that the one
objective measure may well be abolished.
With that objective measure, the USDA has data that shows that the number of
birds contaminated with salmonella and the number of carcasses contaminated
with salmonella has dropped. So that's good news. We can't tell that fewer
people are getting sick as a result because it's just too soon. But it's a
reasonable expectation that if there is less salmonella, fewer people are
likely to get ill. If the objective measure of performance is removed, we will
oppose continuing with the HACCP program.
I don't know what we can support in its place. The old inspection system wasn't
adequate. But without this objective measure, the new system is a farce.
... If you do away with the pathogen standards, then the HACCP truly becomes
what its critics have charged -- an honor system. ... What we're looking for with
the salmonella standard verification is whether or not the program is working.
If that verification and those standards disappear, I think we'd be faced with
saying to the public,"You just have to trust each company." And that means
people would have to know where the meat comes from, and of course they don't.
Is it frustrating for you, given all you have fought for, to make these
changes, to get the new inspection system in?
I should have quit when I was ahead. It was time to retire. I am angry about
the Supreme Beef decision. And I am both angry and disappointed at the USDA's
reaction to it. The Bush administration went to court in October and defended
salmonella performance standards. They argued that they were legal and that
they should be kept. And then the decision came down and the USDA said they are
not important at all, we don't need them."
And although the decision specifically dealt only with ground beef, the
department has chosen not to continue to enforce the standards on carcasses or
in ground poultry. They could do that or at least they could try to do that
until they are told not to, but they have said it is not important.
They haven't tried to enforce ... [the standards] ... on carcasses and poultry.
And starting about two months ago, the department now says they think the
standard is wrong.
What made the change?
Well, there is no new scientific data and there are no new studies that say
that the salmonella standard was wrong. ... They don't have any new data. In
fact, they continue to acknowledge that, since the pathogen reduction and HACCP
rule went into effect, salmonella rates have been cut, sometimes by as much as
50 percent. So it has been effective and there is no new data that says it is
not a good standard, but the department has walked away from it. And these are
people who say they want science-based standards. This change is driven solely
by political pressure from the industry. ...
Let me read you something that Patrick Boyle at the American Meat Institute said about Supreme Beef. He said that it is not that 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 product.
Mr. Boyle has no scientific studies that refute the value of the
salmonella standard. ... They don't have any science that says that they are
not scientific. They have asserted that they are not scientific. I could go
into detail and say all of the reasons why, but they basically just assert it
is not scientific.
Is the issue about whether these are scientific or not?
No. The real issue here is, Does the meat industry have a responsibility to
control the presence of disease-causing bacteria in raw meat and poultry?
Historically, they did not. Since 1995, however, they have. Supreme Beef takes
us back to the time where they had no legal responsibility to control the bugs
that make people sick. We are really not arguing about science, we are arguing
about whether the industry has the responsibility for turning out a product
that has relatively low levels of pathogens.
Their argument is that you have to cook it. That is their science. ... I agree
that consumers have a responsibility to handle food properly and to cook it
well-done. But all of the meat comes to me with that seal of approval, USDA
inspected and approved. Do they have to put that seal of approval on all meat?
Do they have to put it on ground beef that is lousy, that is ripe with
bacteria? Or is there some limit, some standard that the industry has to meet
before it gets that seal? Their argument is that there is no standard. As long
as it is raw, there is no limit on how much bacteria it can have.
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, only five
failed three times and two of those were owned by Supreme Beef. Everybody in
the industry passed this test. Why is Patrick Boyle defending the bottom
dwellers who would take no steps to meet a standard that wasn't very high? Why
is he defending them?
Why do you think he is defending them?
Damned if I know.
The government doesn't have mandatory recall authority. Is that acceptable?
How do you feel about that?
I think the government should have mandatory recall authority. I sat in rooms
and negotiated voluntary recalls with companies. And their lawyers would
quarrel and quibble and hold out for day after day, and by the time you finally
got them to recall the meat, guess what? A lot of it had been eaten.
So they have a motivation to delay?
A mandatory system would take the bad actors, and not let them get by with
that. Most companies try to produce clean meat. Most companies do voluntary
recalls. Rules are written for those who will not play within the social
contract without a legal mandate to do so.
Patrick Boyle says that there has been no company that has not gone along
with a voluntary recall requested by the USDA.
Ultimately, but they delay. And if you [ask for a recall], say, on that ground
beef, and somebody says, how do you know? How much do I have to recall? How do
you know that 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.
The government has the authority to recall baby carriages and a lot of other
consumer products. None of those products come to you with a U.S. government
seal of approval. I do believe that getting the seal of approval from the U.S.
government, getting that imprimatur of acceptability, imposes more
responsibility on the meat industry than on those people who don't get a seal
of approval. It's the only product that the government approves for you in
advance. Yes, I think they ought to be able to recall it. ... You can recall
bath seats and toys and whistles and lots of other things, but not the food
that we know kills 5,000 people every year.
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