After publishing two important articles (Dec. 1 and Dec. 8) on the subject earlier this month, USA Today is back with more solid reporting showing why the National School Lunch Program has lagged behind the top fast food chains when it comes to beef safety. To their credit, McDonald’s and other companies were quick to grasp that implementing half-measures when it came to E. Coli would be ruinous:
In 1982, hamburgers from [McDonald's] sickened at least 47 people in Oregon and Michigan. No one died, but the pathogen that caused the severe cramps, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea turned out to be a little-known, especially dangerous form of the common stomach bacteria E. coli. The new subtype, E. coli O157:H7, produced a toxin that destroyed red blood cells and, in later cases elsewhere, caused kidney failure or death.
Confounded by the discovery, McDonald’s hired one of the nation’s best-known food safety scientists, Michael Doyle, and told him, he recalls, “to bulletproof their system so E. coli never happened to them again.”
Basically, the top fast food chains immediately grasped that trial lawyers would eat them alive if they didn’t find a way to make their ground meat completely safe when it came to E. Coli. The National School Lunch Program, by contrast, has never faced the same sort of live-or-die threat of litigation, so officials there never got religious about raising food safety standards.
USA Today also published a companion editorial this morning pinpointing the cause of the USDA’s failure to improve standards for the National School Lunch Program:
No doubt part of the reason for USDA’s laxity is its dual mandate to regulate the agriculture industry while also promoting it. A similar conflict of interest in air safety regulation was eliminated years ago after it was identified as a contributor to plane crashes.
The same should be done with food safety. The USDA’s record suggests that it doesn’t quite grasp the idea that its most important client is the public it’s supposed to protect, not the industries it oversees.