The Long, Hard Road to Beef Safety: Beef Recalls Spike in 2007

The beef industry has long been in a race to keep up with its nemesis, Escherichia coli O157:H7. In 2007, it seemed as if the bacterium was winning. Compared with recent years, 2007 saw a colossal jump in the number of recalls due to beef products tainted with E. coli O157:H7.

At the end of December, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced its 22nd recall of meat tainted by the bacterium. What is the cause of this spike on everyone’s histograms and control charts? What has gone awry in the beef industry? And what has been happening with the USDA, which, until 2007, seemed to have corralled this enteric pathogen?

Unfortunately, these are questions that scientists, regulators, and processors still can’t answer. The rains in the high plains, the droughts in the South, and the nationwide heat waves experienced in 2007 were cited inside industry circles, as were possible mutations of the organism. A number of areas, however, are being reviewed and re-evaluated. As food experts in and out of academia have continued to reiterate, controlling the pathogen involves the long, winding, and sometimes rocky road that encompasses the farm-to-table continuum.

Promise, Then Disaster

What makes 2007’s 22 recalls so shocking is that there were only eight recalls involving O157:H7 in 2006, five in 2005, and six in 2004. Just when it appeared the beef industry was catching up with its nemesis using innovative science-based interventions, disaster struck.

The final O157:H7 recall of 2007 involved 14,800 pounds of ground beef, but even that number pales in comparison to the 21.9 million-pound recall that toppled Topps Meat Company (Elizabeth, N.J.) in September. The Topps recall has the unfortunate distinction of being the fourth-largest recall of tainted ground beef in U.S. history. The demise of Topps was also a somber reminder that this microscopic bug has the potential to kill and maim not only unsuspecting people but giant businesses as well—businesses such as Hudson Foods. Hudson shuttered its doors when 25 million pounds of hamburger was recalled after E. coli was found in the company’s ground beef in 1997. [Editor’s Note: In February, the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company recalled 143 million pounds of beef, making it the largest such recall in United States history.]

The Topps recall grew exponentially, much like bacteria in the right environment. It grew from three days’ production volume to one year’s because product was carried over day after day with no total separation cutoffs. This resulted in an inexcusable and unparalleled one-year total recall. The lack of total separation, or “cleanup to cleanup” accountability, was also the harbinger of the Hudson Foods recall a decade earlier. Unfortunately for Topps, history has an uncanny flair for repeating itself regardless of the business—or century—at hand.

In July 2007, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA detected five positives for O157:H7 in three days. There was nothing linking the samples and no evidence of mistakes on the part of FSIS laboratories. The USDA viewed this O157:H7 spike as a singular event in the 13-year history of FSIS verification testing and deemed that beef operations might not have adequate interventions to address the degree of contamination caused by E. coli O157:H7.

Whatever the cause (or causes) of the recent E. coli O157:H7 resurgence, one element is clear. Both large and small processors have had their company’s names and reputations placed in bright neon lights on the USDA’s recall list for 2007. But perhaps it is time to look behind the scenes and scrutinize the practices of farmers, feedlots, cattle transporters, and slaughterhouses.

Back on the Farm

Eclectic food-borne pathogenic bacteria sicken more than 76 million Americans annually, in many cases after consumption of foodstuffs derived from animals. Post-slaughter intervention strategies have been shown to truncate bacterial contamination from the abattoir to the table. In spite of these proven and effective strategies, foodborne illnesses and food-related deaths occur too frequently. Strategies that expand the continuum of interventions from the abattoir back to the farm may have the greatest potential to further reduce pathogenic contamination.

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