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USDA and Bad Beef

Tom Bearden reports on the government's efforts to make beef safer.

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  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Earlier this summer, 70-year-old Jean Wagner of Bailey, Colorado, spent 11 days in the hospital after eating beef tainted with e-coli 0157h7. The bacteria can cause severe abdominal cramps and bleeding.

  • JEAN WAGNER:

    One night I was just… it was so bad, and I kept begging them to give me, you know, more medication for the pain and everything. But I just begged my son one night; I said, "Mike, just tell the hospital staff to let me die."

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    One person did die, and 44 others were sickened when ground beef from a ConAgra plant in Colorado was sent to stores in 20 states. It happened, despite a $700 million federal inspection system that's supposed to keep dangerous bacteria out of the food supply. It's a system that leaves almost all the testing of meat and the recall process itself up to industry. The bad hamburger was processed on May 31 and was immediately shipped out. Government testing at a distribution site that receives meat from many sources confirmed the presence of the bacteria on June 17. But scientists didn't conclusively determine the bacteria came from ConAgra until two weeks later, on June 29. Only then did ConAgra recall 300,000 pounds of beef. Nearly three weeks later, on July 19, they expanded the recall to nearly 19 million pounds, making it the second largest food recall in U.S. History. But by then, a lot of the hamburger had already been eaten. Wagner is furious that it took the government so long to act.

  • JEAN WAGNER:

    We had government agencies, and various agencies, that were supposed to… they're getting paid to protect the public's health, and yet they, in their negligence, withheld this information. And people have died from this. Now, to me, these people should be tried for murder, as far as I'm concerned. They deliberately withheld this information from the public.

    ELSA MURANO, Department of Agriculture: This was lightning speed really by all accounts. It was really a third of the time that it normally takes.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Elsa Murano is the undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She acknowledges that the USDA lacks the authority to order a recall or even make a company reveal where the meat has been distributed. But she says having industry in charge makes sense.

  • ELSA MURANO:

    It is their product. It is the fastest way to issue a recall, is for the company actually to do it, because they have all the records. They have all the customer names and ways to let them know that they need to retrieve that product. We, of course, our job is to inform the consumers.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Even so, the delay in notification is being investigated by the agriculture department's inspector general at the request of Congress. The recall also raises questions about the way meat has been processed for the last nine years. In 1993, e-coli contamination of Jack in the Box hamburgers killed four children and sickened 700 people. It led to numerous reforms in the meat industry. Gary Smith, a consultant to ConAgra and a professor at Colorado State University, says as a result, meat is safer today than it has ever been.

  • GRAY SMITH, Colorado State University:

    Using steam pasteurization, using hot water washing, putting weak solutions of organic acid on the product: I think everyone in this industry has really tried to do everything that they can to assure that it's as safe as they can possibly make it.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    He also credits a system called "Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point" or HACCP. The USDA put the system in place six years ago to prevent harmful pathogens from getting into meat during processing. It relies almost entirely on the processing plants themselves to identify potential sources of contamination along the production line and then take steps to prevent it. It also entrusts companies to scientifically test the meat, with government conducting only minimal spot tests.

  • DEL ALLEN, Excel Corporation:

    This is our quality control lab. Basically, we have one of these in every facility.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Del Allen is in charge of food safety at Excel Foods, one of the country's largest meat processors. He says the industry conducts a variety of rigorous tests.

  • DEL ALLEN:

    We also monitor the sanitation of product by taking carcass counts. We take ground beef samples and do sampling on ground beef.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Is all of this to prevent problems from going out the door?

  • DEL ALLEN:

    Well, it's designed for two things. Number one, that, but also to monitor our process and make sure we can maintain process control on all of it as we're going along.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    But Carol Tucker Foreman says the government needs to conduct more tests. Foreman is a former USDA Official and now head of the Food Policy Institute for the Consumer Federation of America.

  • CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN:

    It is an amazing thing to me that the Department of Agriculture believes that if you have the right process, it is not necessary to test the end product. Now, that's a little bit like saying that you go into surgery and you have the surgeon take all the right steps. The patient dies. Was the operation a success? I don't think so.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    The General Accounting Office has also raised questions about the hazard analysis system. It says USDA inspectors are poorly trained to evaluate the production process, that meat testing is inconsistent, and when problems are discovered, companies are seldom punished. Last year, the USDA Informed 60 plants they would have to stop meat production because of food safety violations. But in 95 percent of the cases, processors were not actually forced to shut down, even though the plants then took several months to come into compliance. Foreman says there's no way the system can be effective when the USDA Itself only runs about 5,000 tests a year on ground beef.

  • CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN:

    Five thousand tests a year is almost a joke. They should be doing 50,000, 100,000 tests a year. At the present time, if the company tests the meat, then USDA does not do the testing. Nobody comes in to check to make sure that the company's testing is adequate and that it works the way it should.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    USDA's Murano disagrees. She says the government vigilantly monitors the companies' production line, and that it would be impossible to test every ounce of product. She says the government vigilantly monitors the companies' production lines, and that it would be impossible to test every ounce of product. She says she has worked hard to improve the system.

  • ELSA MURANO:

    When we came into office as part of the Bush Administration, we did our own internal assessment and realized that there were certainly things that needed to be improved in the meat inspection system, and we've taken deliberate steps to do so ever since we took office.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    What specifically did you change?

  • ELSA MURANO:

    We introduced a cadre of new experts called consumer safety officers, that are experts in HACCP, that are going into plants and evaluating not only does a plant have a good food safety program, but does it work? Is it actually doing what it's intended to do? That was not there before.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Consultant Smith says there are really only two additional things processing plants could do to make ground beef safer: Add a lactic acid solution to kill any bacteria present. But federal regulations currently won't permit that because it would add weight to the meat. Or all meat could be exposed to radiation, but many consumers have been wary of accepting that process. (Cows mooing) Short of that, both the industry and critics believe the new focus should be on feed yards to try to prevent the animals from getting e-coli in the first place.

  • GARY SMITH:

    We're now, for the first time in the last two years, really looking at the live cattle supply, trying to determine whether or not we can actually intervene, mitigate some of the risk by changing the things we feed the cattle. One of the things that you can do is add Clorox, for example, or a compound like Clorox, to the drinking water. That kills the bacteria. Other studies, they've taken table salt, which is sodium chloride, changed it into a slightly different form called sodium chlorate, and been able to kill the e-coli 0157h7 inside the bodies of cattle.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Seaweed and a form of yogurt are also being fed to cattle to see how effective they are at preventing e-coli. But Smith concedes this is all at the research stage and years away from any practical application. In the meantime, smith says the ultimate safety measure lies at the opposite end of the food chain. People can kill any bacteria present if they use a thermometer and cook ground meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If they do, nobody will be risking their life at a backyard cookout.

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