modern meat
is your meat safe?
industrial meat
photo of glickmaninterview: dan glickman

How safe is meat today?

Meat and poultry is safe. It's safer than it's probably ever been. I think it could probably be made even safer. But it's probably the safest thing we eat, because it's inspected, whereas seafood is not really inspected in this country, and fresh vegetables and fresh fruits are not really inspected. A lot of imported food is not really inspected. At least meat and poultry is largely inspected.

So why should we put more energy into food safety?

There are more and more pathogens around that can get into the food supply. ... We also raise animals differently now than we used to. They're raised much more intensively; large numbers of them together. And where there is disease, it tends to spread much faster. Therefore, it creates additional risk that we might not have had 30, 40, 50 years ago. ... It may be better for safety: a mass industrialization standardization probably can ensure quality control better, because somebody's watching the product at all stages of the scheme.

Dan Glickman was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1995 to 2001 and served 18 years in Congress as a representative from Kansas. Although he believes that America's meat supply is safer than it has ever been, he is concerned that the USDA's power to regulate and inspect meat-production plants has been diminished by a recent court decision.

The real reason why we haven't been so concerned as a country is because food is so cheap in America.

On the other hand, if a problem develops, that problem becomes a much more monumental and significant problem; that problem will infect thousands of animals, let's say, as opposed to one or two isolated animals. ... Where there is a problem, the risks to the public are greater than they've ever been before because disease, or a pathogen, can affect millions of people, as opposed to just a few. So even though I think the systems are better today, the risks are probably greater as well.

What does that mean for the consumer?

Generally speaking, most consumers can feel comfortable that their food is safer. But they've got to demand the highest standards from the food industry and their government to ensure that it is that way. Because if it isn't, they could be affected by injury, or by disease, or by death. ... And also, the consumer bears some of the responsibility himself or herself to make sure that they handle their food properly. ...

How has the industry changed since the 1920s?

We have gone away from cow-calf operators and small feedlots dominating the production of meat. ... [Now] you clearly have a relationship where, on the processing side of the picture, we have three or four or five very big operations that run the show. And in the meat industry -- beef -- you have four that control over 80 percent of the marketplace; when, in the 1920s, the government filed an antitrust action to break up the "beef trust," I think just five [companies] controlled about 50 percent of the marketplace. So you see, it's become much, much more concentrated.

If we were concerned in 1920 about that kind of consolidation, why aren't we concerned about more consolidation now?

There's a lot of concern in production agriculture. Those farmers and ranchers who are left are very concerned about it, because ... they've got [only] one or two sellers to sell to, and there's no competition.

But the truth of the matter is, the real reason why we haven't been so concerned as a country is because food is so cheap in America. That is, Americans pay a lower per capita cost for food of all types than any place else in the world. And as a percentage of their income, it's the lowest in the world. So as long as Americans get their hamburgers or their chicken or their hot dogs, people have not been overly concerned about these issues of consolidation. ...

So the cost of cheap meat is ultimately going to be, in today's economy, putting the squeeze on the small rancher?

Certainly the smaller rancher will be the most victimized by the pricing system. ...

The meat industry certainly makes the argument that we have the cheapest, safest meat supply anywhere in the world -- and it's basically true. What is the cost of that?

You have a system that mass-produces food. So the positive cost of that is that nobody's hungry in America, or needs to be hungry. And by and large, you get nutritious food, at all times, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I mean, that's great.

The downside of it is, it's so cheap that people kind of take it for granted, and it doesn't tend to build a lot of respect for the things that go in for the production of food. It also has an environmental impact, because you're now producing, food -- particularly animal agriculture -- in very large animal feeding operations, where there's both animal waste and water quality problems. Those are challenges primarily for state governments as well as the EPA. That is certainly a big challenge as well -- the environmental side of the picture.

I don't think we can go back to the old days. But I think that what the government needs to do is it needs to make sure that the pricing is fair, that you don't have monopolies out there, so that people don't have a chance to compete fairly. And we probably haven't been doing as good a job in that area as we should have. ...

Were you, as secretary of agriculture, frustrated by the lack of powers that you had?

I was frustrated by the lack of ability to order recalls of contaminated food. And I was frustrated by the development of these case decisions where it wasn't clear that I had the ability to set performance standards in a way that I would like to set them.

On the other hand, we did make significant improvements in inspection. We implemented the HACCP program, which has had an impact. We have seen salmonella contamination reduced dramatically in the American food supply in the last five years. ... Salmonella is down 30 percent, 40 percent, 59 percent in meat and poultry. But it needs to get down further than that. So there have been great improvements. ...

The Supreme Beef case was certainly an obstacle in the implementation of HACCP. Explain why that was such a challenge.

One of the key things in HACCP was testing for certain pathogens like salmonella or E. coli. So if you came into a meatpacking plant and you found evidence of salmonella or E. coli over a period of time and over a certain number of tests, then you made the judgment that there was a problem in that plant, the problem of sanitation or something else.

The industry said no. There was no way statutorily that we could basically shut the plant down or stop production just based upon a number of tests for those pathogens, when you couldn't prove how it got into the plant or the product on the way out didn't have the pathogens in them. And we said, no, if you go in and test and it is there, then it is there. And you have got to figure out why -- you've got to clean it up. Most did clean it up, by the way. But we were sued on this, and we basically lost the lawsuit. ...

What do you think will be the effect of the Supreme Beef decision on food safety?

I think it's a serious blow to food safety, because repeated evidence of salmonella in a meat or poultry plant will no longer be enough to cause the USDA to take enforcement action to close that plant down if they don't correct the problem. That means, theoretically, you could still have active salmonella in a plant, and that's not good, that's not healthy for consumers.

Isn't this really going back? Because this was an early fight in the infancy of the HACCP regulation.

It's going back with regard to salmonella. There are other pathogens, like E. coli, which I think the USDA could still do this kind of thing on. It has to do with the definition of pathogens under the statute. It gets to be a rather arcane subject matter.

But what needs to have happen now is, Congress needs to engage quickly and define salmonella as the kind of pathogen that you can do this kind of action on. And if they don't act, then nothing will happen. ...

Why has the industry fought the salmonella standard?

I think that they view the USDA regulations as imposing a standard on something that they can't control. That is, if the evidence [of] salmonella comes in through some third party source that they have nothing to do with, [and] they're operating a clean plant themselves, why should they be held responsible? Why should the government take punitive action against them? I think that's what's driving them.

[Elsa Murano], who we spoke to, says that she doesn't think that this decision will affect food safety. She says we're still doing the testing. It becomes an indicator as to where there are problem plants. And then the old rules, or the other rules or regulations available to the inspectors, will be enough to shut down a problem plant. Do you agree with that?

If the USDA enforces those standards where they take repeated tests, and ... send the inspectors back in if there are repeated problems, theoretically closing the plant based on sanitation problems and that kind of thing, maybe it will work out OK. But you've got to go through about 15 steps to get there under what the USDA is now doing as a result of the decision, rather than a quicker process to root out the pathogens much faster under what we did. ...

I quoted to Elsa Murano your statement that you think this was a serious blow to food safety. And she said that she thought that Secretary Glickman was wrong; that she is [herself] a scientist and that she knows that this is not a serious blow to food safety.

Well, she and I have never discussed this matter before. A lot of scientists who I think are probably equally as qualified [as she] agreed with me at the time we issued these rules. So you know, obviously, there are differences of opinion on this thing. But I must tell you, I think most people would agree that the food would be safer if the means to identify pathogens were done faster ... .

Why is this such a big deal?

Well, first of all, salmonella causes more food-borne illnesses every year than any other food-borne pathogen does. Now in most cases it doesn't kill, although it can if you're vulnerable or if you have a disease. But it causes more food-borne disease problems and absences from work than anything else. And so this is not a hypothetical problem.

Second, salmonella is often an indicator or marker for other food-borne problems or sanitation problems. So if you've got an incidence of salmonella in some plant, it may sometimes, but not always, mean that there are [other] more serious problems.

That's one thing that's confusing about the Supreme Beef decision, because it seemed that these objective standards were put in in order not to address the specific problems that we learned from the Jack in the Box E. coli outreak, but also to prevent any new, unknown pathogens that we're not looking for because we don't know about. So does this take us back? Did we not learn the lessons?

... Jack in the Box was a case involving E. coli, and this decision does not affect the requirements on E. coli inspection, and the responsibilities of the companies to deal with that. But what this rule said was that ... salmonella [is] in the same league as ... other pathogens. And the court basically said that Congress never gave us that authority because salmonella was naturally occurring, and therefore the USDA couldn't just define salmonella to be like E. coli when it was not.

I disagree with that decision, but what needs to happen now is for Congress to act quickly to give the USDA that power [to define salmonella as an adulterant pathogen]. ...

Is science really the issue?

Well, science is part of the issue. So is basic understanding about general sanitation. And so is the political issue of giving the government sufficient authority to be able to protect the public interest so that people don't get sick. That is the bottom line here, protecting the health and safety of people: children, older people, Americans who want to make sure that their food supply is safe. I've always said that I believe America has the safest food supply in the world. But I think we were set back a bit by this decision. ...

Patrick Boyle of the American Meat Institute said that the beef industry is not fighting standards that are meaningful and improve the wholesomeness of the product. The beef industry has reservations about unscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of their product.

Well, there's a difference of opinion there. The question is, Is repeated evidence of salmonella -- which is a food-borne pathogen that can make people sick [if the meat is improperly cooked], but that does occur naturally in some of our foods -- a marker of more serious food-borne illnesses? And if so, then, should the companies take remedial action, or else be subject to being closed down or be forced to comply? And, in my judgment, I think the answer is yes. Some people in the meat industry felt otherwise. They sued, and they won. But I think that that doesn't mean Congress shouldn't go back and try to rectify the problem. ... Every scientist believes salmonella is a public health hazard. Every scientist believes that you can get sick from salmonella; no difference there. The question was, what is the power of the government to regulate it? ...

And this is the only product where the government puts a seal on it saying they've inspected it and approved it.

That's correct. I mean the fact is, if the USDA mark has any real power it is in telling people that they should have confidence this product has been inspected and it's safe. Now, the government is not putting an insurance seal on there. You know, after all, you still have to do certain things like handle the product correctly, and cook it correctly. There is some burden on the consumer. It's not all on the meat companies.

One of the more disturbing things about the court decision in the Supreme Beef case was, what the judge basically said was, well, if there is salmonella in this meat, consumers [should] cook it out. That's all you need to do. ... Wash your hands, cook it out, and smile. That was essentially what a big part of the judge's decision was.

Well, the problem with that is, to a large extent, consumers eat a big chunk of their meals out, so they can't control the cooking process at all; somebody else is doing it for them. The consumer should not have to bear the full responsibility for the problem. ...

And the Supreme Beef decision took away the USDA's authority to shut down a plant.

In the case of salmonella, they took away the authority. The government can still take action if you have a plant that's filthy, or full of contamination generally. So you can go in and look and see if all those things occur. What the Supreme Beef decision said is, repeated evidence of salmonella in the meat supplies is not enough to shut the plant down. ...

Isn't this really an argument about whether the science is accurate or not?

Well, what you do in these kinds of cases [is] you recognize that science is complicated and you try to get the best science you can. And both sides of an argument will use science to justify their positions. But, ultimately, the government will make a political decision, ... a policy decision, based on what they think is the right thing to do based upon all the science they get. In my case, we made the decision that salmonella is a contaminant, it causes disease; we heard the scientific evidence, and we thought the science ... justified the use of salmonella as a way to judge whether a plant was doing a good job or not.

... So we used science the best way we could, but ultimately made a political or public policy decision based on protecting the people, their food safety and their ability to withstand illnesses. And that's the only real way you can handle these things.

So you think the Supreme Beef decision actually affects policy negatively for consumers?

I think the Supreme Beef decision will have a negative impact on food safety in this country. I don't think there's any question about it. Now, the trick is, will the USDA use their full inspection powers to try to compensate for that decision, by bringing in more inspectors, more audits?

Do you see any indication that they're doing this?

Certainly in the rhetoric I saw some evidence that they were going to do this, but I think the proof will be in terms of the results, and we don't know yet.

Is it significant that the USDA does not have mandatory recall authority?

It is significant that the USDA doesn't have mandatory recall authority, and we have tried to get that in legislation.

Explain to me what that means.

Basically, that means that if there's a contaminated product out there, the government itself can order the product back rather than having to go to the companies, and they themselves taking the step without the imprimatur of government in calling the product back. ...

In most cases [when] I was there, the companies did quite well in the recall process. They moved quickly. They have no interest in having contaminated product out there. It's an enormous liability problem for these companies, so they will move quickly.

They have fought the government having this power because the companies have felt the government would be too willing to use this power; [that] we could theoretically destroy the reputation of a company by ordering recalls, where maybe the problem could be solved in another way.

I just think it's another tool, another power that the government needs. After all, the government can order through the Consumer Product Safety Commission the recall of defective consumer products such as lamps, electric blankets, tricycles, you name it, but it can't order the recall of contaminated meat. ...

Do you think we are prepared for the next pathogen that we're not looking for? For the next Jack in the Box incident?

... [The] big picture [is]: Food is pretty safe in this country. I mean, any evidence of food-borne pathogens is bad. And [if] anybody gets sick and [dies], [it] is a national tragedy. But, by and large, we have a pretty close to an incident-free society in America, from the aggregate perspective. ... There are still a significant amount of food-borne illnesses, too many. But, from a big picture perspective, we do not have a national epidemic of food-borne illness in this country ... .

Saying that, it could be a hell of a lot safer. And I think that's the goal here. And what you need is an adequate number of inspectors, the big problem in food safety is not enough resources. ... The big problem in food safety is not meat and poultry, the big problem is fresh fruits and vegetables and seafood that gets, for all practical purposes, very little inspection. ...

The industry says that what we need to be doing in terms of food safety is that the consumer needs to be cooking the product better, and we also should be using more irradiation. Do you think that that's an adequate response?

It's a part of a response, it's not a complete response. It reminds me, H. L. Mencken once said, for every complicated problem, there is a simple and a wrong solution. Well, washing your hands is great, it's important, and we could eliminate a lot of food-borne illnesses if people washed their hands and cooked their food better. Irradiation has a place, but it's certainly not an exclusive way of making food safe. ... We've found that irradiation can in fact be a positive factor in certain kinds of foods. It's quite expensive, some foods are more suitable for it than others, [but] you can't have irradiation in every food establishment in America. So it is no magic answer. It's not the cure-all, [but] it's part of the answer. ...

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