Cargill E. Coli Outbreak Highlights Weakness in Beef Inspections

The New York Times has published an interesting report detailing flaws in the U.S. beef inspection system. Because of these flaws, consumers nationwide may face a serious risk from <"">E. coli and other food borne illnesses every time they bite into a hamburger.

The New York Times report uses the case of a 22-year-old woman who developed a severe E. coli infection in 2007 after eating a frozen hamburger patty made by Cargill that was labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” In October 2007 Cargill recalled over 840,000 pounds of these and other ground beef patties after they were linked to an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened more than 900 people. Today, the young woman is paralyzed from the waist down due to her bout with E. coli.

According to the Times, despite being called “Angus” on the label, the hamburger patty the young woman ate was “made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin.” The ingredients came from several slaughterhouses in the U.S., as well as one in Uruguay. A South Dakota facility where some ingredients were obtained processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria, the Times said. Using such low-grade ingredients costs Cargill about 25 percent less than using whole cuts of beef.

These ingredients come from parts of the cow that are most likely to be tainted with E. coli bacteria. According to the Times, Cargill and other manufacturers count on suppliers to test for E coli. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows manufacturers like Cargill to devise their own safety plans, and only “encourages” them to test ingredients prior to using them. Unfortunately, most slaughterhouses will only sell to manufacturers who agree not to test ingredients for E. coli prior to use, the Times said. The slaughterhouses fear a positive E. coli test will set off a recall of their ingredients.

In the case of the patties involved in the 2007 outbreak, Cargill only tested finished ground beef for E. coli. This is not ideal because even when E. coli was found in a finished burger, there was no way to find out which ingredients were tainted, or where they came from. According to the Times, in August 2008 the USDA issued a draft guideline urging, but not ordering, processors to test ingredients before grinding. But the industry has been resisting, and the guidelines have yet to become official.

Prior to the 2007 E. Coli outbreak, federal inspectors had repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef, but they imposed no fines or sanctions, according to the Times. After the outbreak had been detected, federal inspectors conducted spot checks at 224 meat plant and found serious problems at 55 that were failing to follow their own safety plans. These problems occurred even though the USDA had been monitoring these plants.

The USDA did threaten to withhold its seal of approval – the one that states “U.S. Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture”- from Cargill following the outbreak, but in the end, accepted Cargill’s own plan to improve oversight of its suppliers, the Times said.

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