While most of what Americans eat is the responsibility of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Food Safety and Inspection Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees meat and poultry.
Every USDA-inspected food on the market – including steaks, chicken potpies and frozen pepperoni pizzas – carries a government seal indicating the food is “safe, wholesome and correctly labeled.”
The stamp was on the 8.9 million pounds of meat and poultry products 21 companies recalled last year because of fears it contained deadly pathogens. Five of the recalls were linked to 312 illnesses reported nationwide.
The safety of these products is largely in the hands of the companies that bring them to market. Since 1996, all meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants have been required by the federal government to develop Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans. These plans outline how each product could be tainted and what the company will do to avoid or rectify contamination.
Federal inspectors are responsible for seeing that companies follow the hazard control plans. In slaughterhouses, other inspectors check each carcass on the production line.
Flaws in this complex system of industry self-regulation and government oversight were to blame in several outbreaks and recalls over the past five years. Consumers get sick when companies don’t account for major health risks in their food safety plans, workers don’t follow those plans or federal reviews overlook problems.
After four children in Washington and California died in 1992 and 1993 from eating E. coli O157-tainted Jack in the Box hamburgers, the government required safety plans that account for pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.
At the time of the burger outbreak, carcass-by-carcass physical inspection in slaughterhouses was the main government safeguard for meat and poultry.
The deaths exposed the weakness of carcass inspection: Pathogens can’t be seen, smelled or touched.
Federal carcass inspectors, who do not review safety plans, still do the physical checks all day, every day. Their goal is to spot signs of disease and feces on the meat, but some inspectors and consumer advocates say rapid production speeds make it almost impossible to find contamination. At plants that process 140 birds a minute, inspectors have less than 2 seconds with each carcass. Beef inspectors have between 6 seconds and 20 seconds, depending on which carcass part they’re inspecting at the time.
Other government inspectors, whose jobs are to verify that companies abide by their own safety plans, visit slaughterhouses and processing plants, including those that produce deli meats, chicken tenders and ground beef, every day.
Inspectors check cooking and cooling temperatures, take pathogen tests, monitor sanitation and review records companies use to prove they follow procedures. Inspectors can document violations but can’t force a company to change its plan, even if they think it’s a faulty one.
This system “puts the responsibility of food safety in the hands of people trying to make a profit,” said Timothy Pachirat, an assistant professor of politics at The New School in New York.
Pachirat spent five months in 2004 working undercover at a slaughterhouse in Omaha, Neb., for his book “Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight,” scheduled for release in October, 2011.
Contaminated meat and poultry kill more than 600 people and sicken 2.9 million others in the U.S. annually, according to a 2011 University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute analysis.
Back-to-back recalls in 2008 showed how inconsistent federal oversight and a company’s resistance to revising its safety plan can lead to outbreaks.
In July 2008, Omaha-based Nebraska Beef recalled 5.3 million pounds of meat linked to 49 E. coli O157 illnesses in seven states. Then in August 2008, the company recalled 1.4 million more pounds associated with a different outbreak of E. coli O157 that sickened 27 people in 10 states and Canada, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Before the recalls, Food Safety and Inspection Service reports tracked years of violations at Nebraska Beef. In 2002, the government temporarily shut the Omaha plant for not following its own sanitation procedures. (See related records.)
In 2003, Nebraska Beef sued the USDA and individual inspectors, arguing that numerous food safety citations were a conspiracy against the company. The plant passed three federal food safety reviews in 2004 and 2005, according to FSIS inspection reports.
But after failing three E. coli O157 tests in 2006, Nebraska Beef came under heightened government scrutiny for eight months as the plant repeatedly violated its own sanitation procedures, according to the records. And despite the confirmed presence of E. coli O157, the company’s safety plan didn’t acknowledge the pathogen was a health risk in beef trim, one of the most common places to find E. coli O157.
In the three months leading up to the first 2008 recall, inspectors were assigned to review Nebraska Beef’s sanitation procedures, safety plans and pathogen testing protocols 269 times, according to a News21 analysis of millions of federal records.
Data from 2008 provided to News21 were incomplete and did not include the field that says whether inspectors actually fulfilled their assignment. But an analysis of complete records from 2007 shows inspectors performed their assigned duties 98 percent of the time.
That means government inspectors likely OK’d Nebraska Beef’s safety regimen numerous times only shortly before the company’s product sickened more than 75 people.
In a scathing post-outbreak report, Food Safety and Inspection Service officials told Nebraska Beef its pathogen tests did “not give you or us any assurance that your system is working as designed.”
That report said the plant’s testing failed to find any E. coli O157 in June 2008, while an outside lab identified it 19 times that month.
Inspectors were supposed to have scrutinized Nebraska Beef’s testing program nine times between April and June 2008, News21 found.
In response to the FSIS evaluation, Nebraska Beef said it would reduce production line speeds, use different cleaning sanitizers and have a third-party lab test more of its beef for pathogens.
The pages outlining changes Nebraska Beef ultimately made to its safety plan were redacted in a copy of the FSIS report obtained by consumer safety advocate Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch. Corbo made the report available to News21.
Nebraska Beef did not return calls seeking comment. The Food Safety and Inspection Service declined several requests for interviews.
ConAgra Foods’ potpie recall in 2007 also highlights the potential for critical errors.
Recalled beef, chicken and turkey potpies from a ConAgra plant in Marshall, Mo., resulted in more than 400 illnesses reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 41 states between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2007.
Amy Eberle’s then 23-month-old son ate a salmonella-contaminated potpie, causing bloody diarrhea that filled more than 90 diapers a day. Her son, now 5, lost 40 percent of his body weight in three weeks.
“By the third week, I just remember standing there thinking, ‘You have no control,’” said Eberle, an assistant quality assurance manager for an aerospace composite manufacturing company in Minden, Neb. “You don’t know what’s going on.”
After the outbreak, the Food Safety and Inspection Service sent ConAgra a letter threatening to temporarily shut the plant. A copy of the letter was given to News21 by Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who represented Eberle in a 2007 lawsuit against ConAgra. The suit was settled for an undisclosed sum.
The letter said workers weren’t thoroughly inspecting equipment for cleanliness, which the company’s safety plan required. It also questioned whether cooking instructions on the boxes were sufficient to ensure that consumers would get the potpies hot enough to kill salmonella. ConAgra’s safety plan left the responsibility for eliminating pathogens to consumers cooking at home, FSIS said. (See related Conagra records.)
Federal inspectors reviewed ConAgra’s safety plan 138 times in the three months before the October recall, according to News21′s analysis of inspection data. They never cited the company for having a problematic plan during that span.
After the recall, ConAgra sent out a press release saying it would more rigorously test final products and ingredients from vendors for contamination. It also changed cooking instructions on the potpie packages.
A company has to prove it’s following its safety plan, and inspectors rely heavily on company-generated records when determining whether plants are abiding by regulations.
Unreliable paperwork prompted two recalls totaling almost 5 million pounds of food in 2010 at California companies Huntington Meat Packing and Autentico Foods, according to a Feb. 12, 2010, FSIS news release.
A criminal investigation at Huntington determined plant records central to the company’s food safety plan could not “be relied upon to document compliance with the requirements,” according to a recall notice. Food Safety and Inspection Service reports on the 2010 cases were unavailable.
“It may be true that there are plants in which the letter of (the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system) is followed,” said Pachirat, the New School professor, “but the point is there’s a fundamental problem with a food safety system that depends for its regulatory effectiveness on self-reporting.”
Pachirat said workers in his plant, which he did not identify in his book or in an interview, falsified paperwork claiming meat was free of contamination and lied to inspectors about remedying food safety violations.
In the 15 years since the introduction of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system, illness from the six main foodborne pathogens, including E. coli O157, campylobacter and listeria, has decreased 23 percent, according to the CDC.
“The significant reduction in foodborne illness associated with meat and poultry products is the proof” the system is working, said Thomas Billy, a former Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator who was a government and industry consultant after he retired in 2003. “The numbers don’t lie.”
And another News21 report found many public health experts question the extent of E. coli O157′s decline because of changes in clinical testing procedures.
“I certainly don’t buy that we should throw up our hands and say a few deaths here and some kidney failure there is part of having the cheapest meat in the world,” Marler said. “The failure of the food safety system is the failure to put public health first.”
The food safety overhaul President Barack Obama signed in January 2011 applies only to the Food and Drug Administration and does not affect meat and poultry regulation. However, USDA announced in September that it will ban the sale of ground beef, beef trim used for ground beef or machine-tenderized steaks that contain any of the “Big Six” strains of E. coli that together cause roughly 113,000 illnesses in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. Previously, only E. coli O157 was illegal.