At the same time, the fast-food chains played a major, major role in pushingcentralization and industrialization of meatpacking. These chains want a hugeamount of product that's uniform in consistency, so they're not buying fromlittle suppliers anymore.
McDonald's used to buy from over 100 regional ground-beef suppliers. But asMcDonald's got bigger and bigger, they reduced that number to five. So this hadthe impact of creating bigger and bigger meatpacking companies to supply thefast-food chains. And in a very short period of time, we got a veryconcentrated meatpacking industry.
If you were to go back to 1970, the top four firms controlled 20-plus percentof the market. And today, the top four firms control about 85 percent of themarket. So we've gotten bigger slaughterhouses, bigger processing facilities,and really, really big meatpacking companies.
... How have highly centralized slaughter facilities changed or increasedfood-safety risks? ...
The centralization of the meat system has enlarged potential for a largeoutbreak. It used to be that outbreaks were on a smaller, regional level,because suppliers were shipping to a very localized area. When you have agrinder putting out almost a million pounds of ground beef a day, that meat'sgoing to be shipped not just throughout the United States, but also sometimesoverseas. So if there's a problem, this meat can be across America and eveninternational before people realize that contaminated meat has been shipped....
And at the same time, these very, very big meatpacking companies have veryclose relationships with members of the Congress and with the administrationand the USDA. So these big companies are often more responsible for our food-safety policies than the American voters. ...
How do you learn that there's a problem with the meat when, say, by the timeyou find out it's all over the place? ...
There may be a cluster of illnesses in one town, and epidemiologists will traceit back to meat at a restaurant. If there's a sample of the meat left over inthe restaurant, maybe they can find out what plant it came from, and that canprecipitate a big recall.
Unfortunately, most of the time they never find out where the meat comes from.And even when there's a recall, a lot of the meat has already been eaten by thetime they ever realize there was a problem with it.
Most of the cases of E. coli O157:H7 are sporadic cases. They're notpart of a big outbreak that can be easily linked to one source. As a matter offact, most cases of food poisoning are never linked back to their source. Sothe meatpacking industry has the advantage of accountability being very, verydifficult to prove.
Could it be that the fact that we're not finding a lot of these outbreakslinked back to a source means that they don't link back to these centralizedsources?
Well, they've got a source. And in terms of what proportion of the illnessesare caused by ground beef, what proportion are caused by fruits and vegetablesthat haven't been cooked, this is stuff that the science is going to have todiscover. But if you're looking at meat and you're testing meat, and you'refinding pathogens that can make people sick, and people are getting sick fromthese same bugs in society, logic would dictate that some of them are gettingsick from the meat. ...
[H]ow do [slaughterhouses] contribute to the spreading of pathogens or theincreased food safety risks?
... The slaughterhouses that the United States have are pretty unique in termsof the speed of production. We have slaughterhouses that will process 300, 400cattle an hour, which is as much as twice as many as anywhere else in theworld. And it's that speed of production that can lead to food-safetyproblems.
When workers are working very quickly, they may make mistakes. It's during theevisceration of the animal, or the removal of the hide, that manure can get onthe meat. And when manure gets on some meat, and then that meat is ground upwith lots of other meat, the whole lot of it can be contaminated. ...
At a slaughterhouse, you have big animals entering at one end, and small cutsof meat leaving at the other end. In between are hundreds of workers, mainlyusing handheld knives, processing the meat.
So during that whole production system, there are many opportunities for themeat to be contaminated. What we're really talking about is fecal contaminationof the meat from the stomach contents or the hide of the animal. When workersare working too quickly, they can make mistakes. And if a little bit of meatgets contaminated, when it's ground up, it can contaminate a lot of meat.
I would imagine that a lot goes into the design of these factory productionlines to make them very efficient. ... So you would think that they would beexpert at doing their job and therefore contain the pathogens in some way. Isthat how it works?
There have been a lot of technological advances in slaughterhouses, andespecially food-safety technology improvements since the Jack in the Boxoutbreak -- these steam cabinets and various washes and interventions. Butone of the problems is the high, high turnover rate among workers at theseplants. The industry averages anywhere from 75 percent to 100 percent a year,which means you have a constant flow of workers in and out of these jobs.
Ideally, what you would have would be skilled workers and a stable work force,so that people really know the jobs they're doing and can do them properly. ...That's not what we have right now ... especially [with] some of the mostimportant jobs in terms of the evisceration and the tying off of theintestines. These are really unpleasant jobs, and if the workers are notskilled at doing them, they can make mistakes that contaminate the meat.
Just explain dehiding for me. What does that even mean?
Dehiding is when the hide of the animal is being removed. The hide is oftenquite dirty when the animals have been packed closely together or when they'vebeen outside the slaughterhouse awaiting their fate. They may get manure on thehide. And it's in the dehiding process that some of the manure may fall off theskin and the fur and onto the meat.
One guy I talked to who worked in one of these plants was talking about thedehiding. When they pull the hide off, it sort of aerosolizes, and then can goanywhere. So it becomes incredibly difficult to track down these littlemicrobes.
... There a couple of problems when it comes to contamination of the meat. Someof it is visible manure on the meat. The other problem is the invisibleaerosoled manure that is spread everywhere.
There's some argument that some of these washes may actually be spreading andaerosoling some of these pathogens. These bugs are invisible; really dangerousbugs are invisible. That's why you need to have testing of the meat, to findout dangers that you can't see with your eyes. ... Modern science has given usthat ability and we should be using it. ...
We are using it, aren't we?
We're not using it enough. I think there should be very strict limits on thepathogens that can be sold in your meat. There should be limits ondisease-causing pathogens. Tests should determine whether the meat iscontaminated or not, and you shouldn't be allowed to sell contaminated meat.Seems very straightforward to me.
We have this new inspection system [HACCP] that, for the first time, broughtin the microbe testing. Wasn't that a good change? Doesn't that give us somereassurance that the meat is safer?
Bringing in pathogen testing was a very good change. Unfortunately, the systemhas been changed since then, so that the government can't really do much basedon the test results that it has.
The key is to hold these companies accountable for the disease-causing bugs inthe meat. And if the USDA cannot shut down a processing plant because of high,high levels of salmonella, what's the point of doing the testing in the firstplace?
It's amazing that right now in the United States, you can sell ground beefthat's full of salmonella that could make people very sick, and that groundbeef will have a USDA label on it. It's perfectly legal to sell. That's crazy.I mean, meat should be tested, and safe meat should be offered for sale. Andmeat that contains dangerous pathogens shouldn't be allowed to be sold at amarket.
The meat industry argues that salmonella and some of these other pathogensare almost unavoidable in the meat, and that the key issue is that there isn'tsalmonella in the cooked meat. ... They do theirbest to keep it clean along the way. It's also the consumer's responsibility tohandle it properly and cook it well.
Well, that's the meatpacking industry's argument. And they're very, veryopposed to any pathogen levels for the American consumer. But for their biggestcustomers, like the fast-food chains, they're more than willing to do all thepathogen testing in the world. McDonald's and Jack in the Box will not acceptmeat that [has] salmonella above a certain level, that [has] E. coli O157:H7 in it.
For some reason, these companies believe it's important not to have diseasepathogens in the meat. And the meatpacking company has no problem with that. SoI would say that the USDA should look at what the fast-food chains are doing,and afford the same protection to ordinary American consumers who get theirmeat at a supermarket.
So the USDA seal doesn't mean the same thing that [the] McDonald's stamp ofapproval does?
McDonald's right now has much tougher standards than the USDA. What's so ironicis that McDonald's has been testing for salmonella since 1993. It has a muchtougher salmonella standard than the USDA ever adopted. And the meatpackingindustry doesn't complain about that, because this is a very big, powerfulcustomer.
The point is for smaller customers and for individuals to be getting safe meat,too. And that's where the government really should be stepping in. ...
Let's talk specifically about the packers and the role that they play. Youtalked about the power of the fast-food companies. I think people in generaldon't understand the dynamics of the meat industry and how it's segregated. Whoare the big players on the block? Who are the ones that really control the meatindustry?
There are really three companies that control the beef industry in the UnitedStates. Excel, which is a subsidiary of the huge agribusiness company Cargill.ConAgra, another huge agribusiness company. And Tyson IBP, which is the biggestmeatpacking company the world has ever seen. These three companies are theheart of the American meatpacking industry.
How powerful are they?
They're very, very powerful. If you're a rancher or if you're a consumer, thesethree companies have an enormous impact on the sale of cattle and on the meatthat's being purchased. ...
I've always had the sense that a slaughterhouse is a terrible job. It's adifficult job. That people have been doing too much in too short a time. Is itreally any different now?
It's very different now. Work in a slaughterhouse has changed enormously in thelast 25 years. It's always been a difficult job. It's always been a dangerousjob. But up until recently, this was a job that had good pay, had goodbenefits, and you had a very stable work force. In the early 1970s, meatpackinghad one of the lowest turnover rates of any industrial job in America. It waslike being an autoworker.
Then they cut wages, they cut benefits, broke unions. And now it has one of thehighest turnover rates of any industrial job. So you have a constant churningof the workers. And just like airport security -- where the airport securityworkers had a high turnover rate and [were] being treated badly and paidpoorly, and that has an impact on airport safety -- I think the same is truewith food safety.
The people who are working in these plants should be well trained and wellpaid, and it should be a stable work force. I think that would have a bigimpact on the safety of the food we eat. ...
What did the Jack in the Box outbreak reveal to us as a country? Whatwas significant about that, other than obviously the deaths andillnesses?
The Jack in the Box outbreak revealed the potential for large-scale outbreaksof a very, very dangerous pathogen. There had been much smaller outbreaks ofE. coli going back to a McDonald's outbreak in 1982, but not muchattention had been paid to them. When 700 people were sickened across a numberof different states, this was a wakeup call that there were some fundamentalproblems in our food safety system.
Did it also reveal the problems with the inspection system?
It showed that we were still using 19th-century inspection techniques inthe late 20th century. The meatpacking industry had resisted for years anypathogen testing of the meat. But once children were dying, and once hundredsof people were sickened, it became very, very difficult for this industry toresist scientific testing of the meat, as the industry had been fighting it foryears. ...
Scientists had been warning for years that our centralized meatpacking systemwas a perfect way of spreading dangerous diseases and pathogens. The Jack inthe Box outbreak was the first time it really happened, and publicly happened.It was a wakeup call for regulators and for the public, and it led to theintroduction of science-based inspection. ...
Today, what role are these fast-food companies like McDonald's and Jack inthe Box playing in terms of improving food safety? ...
The irony is that the purchasing needs of the fast-food chains did a lot tocreate this problem in the first place. But now, ever since the Jack in the Boxoutbreak, they're purchasing probably the cleanest meat in the United States,because McDonald's and Jack in the Box are insisting on very rigorous testingof the meat that they purchase.
That's great. Unfortunately, the rest of the meat is being [shipped] off to thepublic and is being shipped off to supermarkets. And that meat isn't beingtested anywhere near as much. ...
Are they skimming the cream off the top?
Well, I give them credit. I think that McDonald's and Jack in the Box are doingthe responsible thing. They are using their purchasing power to insist upontough, rigorous testing of the meat.
What I would like is our government to make the same demands of the meatpackingindustry that the fast-food chains are now making. Jack in the Box has shownthis can be done for just a penny a pound, I think, or a few pennies apound.
Then why doesn't the government do it?
The government doesn't do it because the government is overly influenced by themeatpacking industry. ...
If you go back 100 years, you see the meatpacking industry and the federalgovernment working very closely together. You see the USDA being enormouslyinfluenced by the meatpacking industry since its inception. And food safety hasnever been a top priority of the meatpacking industry when it comes to federallegislation. ...
But why would they do that? I mean, they're providing food. This is theirproduct. This is their reputation.
Well, the meatpacking industry doesn't want anyone to get sick. They don't wanttheir consumers to get sick. But at the same time, they're unwilling to spendthe extra money to ensure they won't get sick. And most of all, they don't wantthe legal responsibility and liability if someone does get sick. ...
People need to understand that the current battle over food safety is not anisolated incident. It's part of a pattern going back 100 years, of fightingagainst every effort to inspect and regulate the safety of meat. ... If youlook at what was happening 100 years ago and you look at the "four Ds" -- Dead,Diseased, Disabled, Dying animals -- that's what the debate [was about] in theearly 1960s, [that] they couldn't sell these things through interstatecommerce, but they were able to sell it within states. And that's what theywere doing with these terribly diseased animals.
... In most cases, you can never link the illness back to a specific cut ofmeat or to a certain shipment. So they have worked very hard to avoid any ofthat kind of trace back and to avoid any testing, or to avoid any of themechanisms that will hold them legally responsible for people getting sick fromtheir meat. ...
If you look at the automobile industry and the way in which seatbelts andairbags have saved thousands and thousands of American lives, the automobileindustry didn't do this voluntarily. It did it in the face of federalregulation. The automobile industry didn't want people to be killed inaccidents, but it didn't want to spend the extra money to ensure they wouldn'tbe killed.
The government really needs to put pressure on the meatpacking industry to makesure that its products are safe.
But the meat industry says that they have spent millions of dollars in thelast few years, that they actually supported HACCP going in; [that] they havedone an enormous amount, and in some areas, can show improvement in the safetyof meat.
The meatpacking industry has spent millions of dollars improving its food-safety technology in recent years. It has embraced HACCP. But what it hasn'tembraced is being held accountable to the disease-causing pathogens in itsmeat. And they should be held accountable according to a certain standard.
Why is that so important, to be held accountable?
Well, HACCP is a process. HACCP is a description of a manufacturing process andhow that process is monitored. But the most important thing isn't the processthey're using. The most important thing is the quality of the meat that they'reshipping. Now, a number of companies have proven that they can ship meatwithout dangerous pathogens, so this isn't impossible to do. All companiesshould be measured by whether their meat can make you sick or not, and that'swhat this industry resists. They resist any formal accountability of what's inthe meat that they're selling.
Let me just read a couple things that [American Meat Institute President]Patrick Boyle said, because they seem like logical arguments. "It's not thatthe beef industry is fighting standards that are meaningful, that improve thewholesomeness of the product. The beef industry has reservations aboutunscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of theproduct."
Well, why would McDonald's be employing standards that are totally unscientificfor salmonella or for E. coli or fecal contamination? McDonald's is thebiggest purchaser of beef in the world. I assume they know something about themeat that they're buying, and they don't want salmonella in it. So why shouldordinary consumers be getting salmonella in their ground beef? ...
[Fast-food chains] are the biggest purchasers of beef in the United States.They are setting very tough standards for the meatpacking industry. I think theAmerican people should be receiving meat that's of the same level ofcleanliness.
These big purchasers of meat think it's significant if there are high levels ofsalmonella in the meat. They think it's significant if there are high levels offecal contamination. So if the fast-food chains think this is good science andit's significant, I think that's important. The meat industry should justacknowledge what's common sense: Fecal contamination of your meat is not a goodthing.
That's a good way of saying it.
Yes. At some point, all these arguments are just absurd. If you look at theSupreme Beef decision -- the Court of Appeals decision -- and you readthrough all the legalisms, it might make sense on one level. But behind it allis just common sense, which is that you don't want salmonella in your groundbeef. You don't want fecal material in your ground beef.
And these big purchasers of ground beef -- McDonald's, Jack in the Box, BurgerKing -- they don't want it in their meat, either. So the meatpacking industry'sarguments kind of dissipate and vanish in the face of common sense. ...
I think it's very simple. The government should be testing for pathogens thatcan make people sick. And if there's too much of those pathogens in the meat,[companies] shouldn't be allowed to sell the meat. Now, you can argue aboutwhat's an adulterant or what's not an adulterant. But under the law, you can'tsell rubber gloves that have been ground up in the ground beef. That's anadulterant, but most likely, that won't make you sick. Salmonella could makeyou very sick. A lot of the pathogens that are linked to fecal contaminationcan make you sick.
So it just makes common sense that there should be limits on how much of thefecal material and of these bugs should be in your meat. ...
So explain to me what the Supreme Beef case is. Just give me a littlethumbnail sketch of what it is and why it's important.
... Supreme Beef marked the first time in history that the USDA shut down aground-beef plant for high levels of salmonella contamination. And this wasn'tjust any ground-beef plant -- this was a ground beef plant that was supplyingas much as 45 percent of the meat for the national school lunch program. Thismeat was going to be sold and served to kids. So the USDA shut down this plant.Supreme Beef immediately challenged that decision, arguing that salmonellashouldn't be regarded as an adulterant of ground beef, and arguing that thegovernment had no right to shut down their plant for high levels of salmonellacontamination.
Now, at the heart of this case is the question of whether science-based testingcan be used to shut down a plant or not. Supreme Beef argued that it shouldn'tbe held responsible for the contamination of this meat, because it was simply aprocessor. And the National Meat Association entered the case, arguingprocessors can't be held accountable for the contamination of their meat.
But in this case, Supreme Beef was buying much of its meat from its ownslaughterhouse. And that slaughterhouse had high levels of salmonellacontamination, and had failed three consecutive tests for salmonella.
The Supreme Beef decision throws into question the entire ability of the USDAto shut down plants that are contaminated with pathogens, because if salmonellaisn't an adulterant -- even though it makes over a million Americans sick everyyear -- why is E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant? Why is botulism somethingthat you don't want to have in your meat?
You could argue that that salmonella and E. coli, if you cook the meatthoroughly, won't hurt you. But the reality is [that] these things shouldn't bein your meat. There are ways to keep them out of the meat. And these companiesare unwilling to keep them out for the American consumer the way that they arefor the fast-food chains. ...
First of all, what do you mean by an "adulterant"? It's a technical term.What does that actually mean?
When the first meat inspection law was passed, it said that you could not haveany adulterants in the meat. That's stuff that shouldn't be in meat. And Ithink the original legislation referred to filth, but it also might besomething like metal shavings or glass or various contaminants of the meat.
The meatpacking industry argues that salmonella is not an adulterant of meatbecause it's so commonly found in meat. Well, the reason it's so commonly foundis because the meat has been contaminated by fecal material. That's the mostlikely source of salmonella. So it's quite an argument that they're making:"We've contaminated our meat. And therefore, the meat isn't contaminated." ...
There are many good companies that are producing clean meat. And what'sunfortunate is they have to compete against companies that are much sloppier,that are shipping dirty meat. It's the good companies that show that thesechanges can be made and that meat doesn't have to be contaminated withsalmonella. ...
Both the USDA and the industry are saying this isn't a significant ruling,because it was used against very few plants.
... I don't put much faith in the USDA at the moment. One of the first thingsthat the USDA did after the election of President Bush was to eliminate thesalmonella standard for ground beef that they were purchasing to be served tochildren in schools. And there was such an uproar after that, that they backedaway and resumed salmonella testing for the beef that's going to be served inschools. This USDA is not vigorously opposing the meatpacking industry. ...
Today we have the testing. But there's no real punishment on the horizon afterthe Supreme Beef case. The USDA is really backing away from toughenforcement.
So you think the [decline in salmonella incidents is] actually proof thatthe system was working, and needs to be as tough as it was?
The improvements, I think, are due to the fact that these companies werefinally being held accountable by something that could be measured -- theamount of salmonella in their meat -- and they knew if they failed their tests,they may face closure. I think a great deal of that accountability has beenlost. It is such a rare, rare event that a plant will be closed. In the SupremeBeef case ... as much as 50 percent of [the meat] was contaminated withsalmonella. They were shut down.
And they won the case [challenging the USDA's decision to shut down its plant].I think this sends a very clear message about where the real power lies at themoment. ... Here was a company [Supreme Beef] that repeatedly failed tests fora dangerous pathogen. The USDA, for the first time in its history, shuts down aplant because of scientific-based tests showing this pathogen is there. And theUSDA loses the case. This sends a clear message that this pathogen testing andthat this whole science-based system can be overturned by the meatpackingindustry.
All the other testing that the USDA does now has been called into question,because if salmonella is not an adulterant in meat, if it's perfectly fine tosell meat with salmonella, why not sell it with campylobacter? Why notsell it with all kinds of other pathogens? This was a very important ruling....
HACCP is a process. It's a system for determining where food-safety risks areand dealing with them. ... But much more important than any process are theresults, and the testing shows you the results. The testing shows you if themeat is contaminated, and how badly. So to have HACCP, a process, without anymeasurement at the end of it is almost meaningless. The most important thingare the results. ...
Explain to me the difference between the old system and [HACCP]. Whatchanged?
What changed significantly in 1996 [with HACCP] is that the government got thepower to test for disease-causing pathogens in meat and hold companiesaccountable scientifically for the meat that they were shipping. Previously,inspectors could only look at the meat, sniff it, poke it, but couldn't performthese scientific tests that would hold these companies accountable.
I think the introduction of HACCP was part of a bargain that was made.Meatpacking companies were given more power over the food-safety practices andtechniques in their plants. And inspectors were pulled back from the line. Inreturn, the USDA was supposed to receive much more power for testing and forholding these companies accountable. ...
You say [HACCP] gave the companies more power. What do you mean?
The introduction of HACCP removed many inspectors from plant floors. [Testing]was supposed to be done scientifically. And inspectors, instead of looking atall these carcasses, were put into offices and looking at paperwork to makesure that all the various testing was being done properly.
So the companies were very eager to get the inspectors off of the plant floor.And they got that. ... The whole aim is to get inspectors out of the plantentirely. It used to be that an inspector literally had to examine everycarcass and was visually inspecting every carcass, but couldn't perform testson the meat.
Today, inspectors are being pulled off of the floor and put into offices inorder to go through paperwork. The meatpacking companies have been successfulin removing inspectors from the floor without being held accountable throughrigorous testing of the meat. ...
HACCP is a process-oriented system. It analyzes where things can go wrong in aplant. But I think you're better off not having HACCP but having strict testingof the meat, than you are having all these HACCP plans without realaccountability. The biggest recall in American history -- the Hudson Foodsrecall, which was 25 [million] or 35 million pounds of potentially contaminatedground beef -- that plant had a HACCP plan.
HACCP plans can go wrong. The key is testing. The key is making sure that themeat coming out the door isn't contaminated.
We talked to some inspectors who have a hard time with HACCP. This is anindustry, however, that inspectors have had difficult relationships with theircompanies all along. Are we letting the fox guard the chicken coop? What do youmake of these inspectors' complaints?
I think the inspectors' complaints have a lot of validity. In pullinginspectors back without extensive and rigorous testing for dangerous organisms,you are giving enormous power over to these companies. The introduction ofHACCP was supposed to give the companies the benefit of more control over howthey dealt with food safety.
But at the same time, it was supposed to give the government the power to holdthese companies accountable for what they're shipping out the door throughscientific testing. You eliminate the testing, and you've basically given anenormous amount of power back to the meatpacking industry. ...
Let's [talk about] irradiation. ... It seems that, certainly, theindustry's argument is that even amongst the best companies -- with all theydo, the millions they spend, the amount of testing they do -- they can'tguarantee that the meat is free of E. coli. They say that irradiation,which the National Academy of Science and others have endorsed, would addressthis serious public health risk. Given the situation we find ourselves in,isn't [irradiation] an appropriate response?
I don't think there have been any large-scale epidemiological studies of peopleeating irradiated meat over long, long periods of time. I hope irradiated meatis safe, and it very well may be. But before you start irradiating the meat, Ithink the meatpacking industry should be cleaning up its plants, because if youjust start irradiating the meat, you're allowing them to essentially irradiatethe feces on the meat.
So there's two questions. Firstly, should we be selling and buying irradiatedmeat? I think that's up to the consumer, ultimately. But the second point is,this irradiated meat should be clearly and unmistakably labeled as irradiatedmeat. And the industry has tried very, very hard to avoid that and to come upwith all kinds of euphemisms for what's happening to the meat and what's in themeat.
There are many companies right now that are producing very clean ground beefwithout irradiation. And my fear about irradiation is it'll be a perfect excusefor this industry not to clean up its act in the way that it really needs to.This may turn out to be a very wonderful technology, long-term. But we reallydon't know enough about it, I think, to introduce it on a large scale. ...
The other thing is, once the meat's irradiated, it can become contaminated andcolonized by all kinds of bad bugs. ... It's irradiated, but then it's got tobe transported. And there are so many other opportunities. If it's sterile,there may be good bugs in it, but they get killed off. And then it just getscolonized by terribly bad bugs. ...
Explain how irradiation hurts the good players.
... Right now, there are meatpacking companies who are doing a very good job atproducing clean meat. And there are companies that are doing a very bad job.Irradiation levels the playing field. In a way, it punishes the companies whoare spending the extra money, doing the testing in order to do things right.
I think irradiation is a way for this industry not to be forced to clean up itsact. I don't think we should introduce something that helps the sloppiestcompanies compete against the really good companies.
Because ultimately you're sanitizing fecal material?
Well, when you're irradiating meat, you're irradiating it and everything on it,including the fecal material. I would prefer to have meat without fecalmaterial, as opposed to meat with irradiated fecal material. ...
The meat industry says that meat should not be labeled "irradiated," itshould be called "cold pasteurization." What does that mean? Why not"irradiation"?
I think that they're trying to avoid revealing what's actually been done to themeat. "Cold pasteurization" is a phrase that's been invented to cover up thefact that this meat has been irradiated. And, I think much more important, isif they're going to irradiate the meat, they should openly reveal that's whatthey're doing to it so that consumers can decide if they want to eat it ornot.
Tom Harkin, a longtime advocate of food-safety issues, has put this into theFarm Bill. What do you make of that?
Senator Harkin slipped it into the Farm Bill. He's been a great food-safetyadvocate, but I think his interest in this case has less to do with food safetythan the fact that one of the largest manufacturers of irradiation equipment isfrom his home state. ...
The meat supply is under all kinds of threats. ... If you can't bring in newtechnologies, or if you're limited -- if at one level, we're saying technologyis bad here, the centralization of the technologies that have led to that, andall of that, is a problem -- is the answer, then, to step back?
... I think some technologies -- new technologies -- are wonderful, and somenew technologies are not. In the case of ground beef, I think slowing down theproduction line and trimming the meat much more carefully to keep the manureoff it is more important than introducing irradiation that has uncertainlong-term health effects. The fact is, there are some companies who are able toproduce clean meat without radiation and irradiation. Those companies should berewarded, and companies that are producing dirty meat should be punished.Irradiation, I think, unfairly levels the playing field between those twogroups.
But given the threats out there, isn't there a need for finding new ways toaddress these new threats, as opposed to slowing down the line, reducing thenumber of cows in a feedlot? ...
I think some of the new technologies are quite good. These high-pressure steamcabinets, for example. But that doesn't mean that irradiation is good. Eachtechnology needs to be judged on its own criteria and for its own possiblelong-term effects.
Irradiation may prove to be totally safe or it may not. So I think before westart irradiating the meat, we can do much simpler, commonsense changes to thisindustry that might have a huge effect. ... There are much simpler changes thatcould occur that would have enormous effects. I think just testing the meatconstantly will change the behavior of the meatpacking industry.
And there isn't always a simple technological solution. Sometimes the solutionsare much easier than that. ...
How significant are [recalls]? What should we think of when we hear that500,000 pounds of ground beef are recalled from an IBP plant, or...
The importance of recalls is to show that contaminated meat is getting out thedoor. And when you look at these recalls, in many ways the most disturbingthing about these recalls is how little of the meat actually winds up back atthe plant. Again and again, you'll find the meat is eaten before the recall hasbeen widely announced. So I think that these recalls are a sign that the systemisn't working properly. Ideally, you wouldn't be sending contaminated meat outthe door.
In some ways, it's proof that HACCP works, because we've had a huge increasein recalls. It's shown us what the problem is.
In a way. I mean, the recalls are a sign that contaminated meat is being widelyshipped throughout the United States. The reason you didn't have recalls beforeis because nobody was testing the meat in the same way. ... I think one of theguiding principles of this industry for too long is that if you don't test, youdon't know that you have a problem, and you don't have to deal with it. I thinkthat the testing is forcing the industry to deal with the fact that it'sshipping contaminated meat. ...
[It's] unbelievable that state health authorities often can't track what storesare selling the meat, because the meatpacking industry argues this isproprietary information.
Now, you know their competitors know exactly where they're selling the meat --but they're not revealing this to state authorities. And it could have a hugeimpact in terms of preventing people from eating contaminated meat.
How significant is it that the USDA does not have mandatory recallauthority?
It's incredible to me that the federal government can order the recall of astuffed animal with a glass eye that could come off and choke a child, but thatthe federal government cannot order the recall of thousands of pounds ofcontaminated ground beef that could kill a child. I think the lack of recallauthority is a very powerful sign of how influential the meatpacking industryhas been, and how it's been able to avoid tough regulation. The federalgovernment absolutely needs the power to order the recall of meat; the absenceof that power is incredible.
The meat industry says that they have never not cooperated with a recallrequest from the USDA, and therefore, it's not needed.
If you look at the press releases whenever there's a recall, these companiesmake very clear that it's a voluntary recall. What happens is, when thegovernment starts asking for a recall, there's a negotiation process. And whilethey're negotiating how much meat should be recalled, people are eating thatmeat.
This is not a trivial matter. This is meat that is potentially contaminatedwith bugs that could kill you. ...
We've talked a lot about salmonella and E. coli. Are those the onlyproblems out there?
If you look at the pathogens that are causing enormous concern right now --E. coli O157:H7, listeria, campylobacter -- these haveonly been recognized in the last 20 years or so. The great bulk offood-poisoning cases involve pathogens that haven't even been recognized yet....
The problem is that this centralized system of distribution of production isperfect for spreading all kinds of pathogens. There may be pathogens that wehaven't even discovered yet, or there may be entirely new pathogens that areintroduced to our country. And this system is ideal for spreading them far andwide. We're very fortunate that we've never had Mad Cow Disease yet in theUnited States. But a centralized system of this kind would be ideal forspreading it. ...
Jack in the Box made us understand this risk. Have we dealt with iteffectively?
The Jack in the Box outbreak demonstrated to the public the risk of thesepathogens in the meat and of the system. I think there was a real start towardsdealing with it adequately. And the Supreme Beef case is a step backward. Weneed to be much more adamant and rigorous about testing the meat for dangerouspathogens. ... Who knows what could come next?
Are you anti-meat?
I still eat beef. I've been into the processing plants and slaughterhouses, andI still eat beef. But I'm angry about what's in a lot of our meat, and I thinkother people should be angry too. So much of this is unnecessary. We can beproducing a great deal of beef without many of the harms and without many ofthe pathogens that are now in the meat. ...
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