NY Times: E. Coli and Beef Industry Negligence

Today’s New York Times has a 5000 word piece exploring problems at beef plants that lead to E. coli outbreaks. This piece has some terrific reporting, and is probably the best article I’ve ever read on the topic. It describe food safety protocols within the beef industry that seem broken by design.

If you want to know whether the USDA puts beef processors or the public health first, look no further than this quote:

Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said.

And take a look at what retailing giant Costco must deal with in its efforts to offer its customers safe ground beef:

The retail giant Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding, a practice it adopted after a New York woman was sickened in 1998 by its hamburger meat, prompting a recall.

Craig Wilson, Costco’s food safety director, said the company decided it could not rely on its suppliers alone. “It’s incumbent upon us,” he said. “If you say, ‘Craig, this is what we’ve done,’ I should be able to go, ‘Cool, I believe you.’ But I’m going to check.”

Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.”

Costco’s experience is not unique:

The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”

This article is bound to give hundreds of thousands of omnivores misgivings about ever eating beef again. (Thanks, Larry.) Link.