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It's what's for dinner.

Most everyone heard about Hudson Foods's twenty-five-million-pound recall of bacteria-contaminated ground beef last summer. It was the largest recall in U.S. history. But not many heard what Hudson planned to do with the contaminated beef after the company got it back.

Two weeks following the recall, Hudson Foods sought to cook and resell the ground beef that was contaminated with Escherichia coli O157:H7, a deadly pathogen that killed four children in the infamous Jack-in-the-Box outbreak in 1993. The bacteria was first discovered in ground meat in 1992. Cooking the meat at high temperatures would kill the bacteria and make it usable for such prepackaged foods as pizza toppings, chili, and taco meat. But when word about Hudson's plan leaked out in the press, the company did a quick about-face and gave up on cooking and selling the product. Why? The bacteria is found only in feces. Selling the product "cooked" would result in bacteria-free food, but not food that is free of fecal material.

Hudson Foods was doing nothing wrong or illegal in seeking to cook bacteria-contaminated meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's OK for meat processors to serve you fecal-contaminated food, just so long as the pathogens are not present. Think of that the next time you get a craving for a hamburger.

"If it goes through a processing plant where the bacterium can be destroyed, it's perfectly wholesome food, nutritious food," says Jacque Knight, a spokesperson for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees meat inspection and recalls in the United States.

There's not much the USDA can do anyway. If Hudson's managers wanted to cook the contaminated meat and resell it, the USDA could not have stopped them. "We don't have the authority to command them to destroy it," Knight adds. The agency doesn't even have the authority to mandate a recall from a company.

Ever since Hudson's voluntary recall, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman has been seeking mandatory recall authority for his agency. But so far he has not won it.

The USDA cannot do an adequate job of protecting the American public from contaminated meat. It lacks serious enforcement authority, it is unable to recover the majority of recalled contaminated meat, and it permits the product that is recovered to be recycled, cleaned up, and served as wholesome food to an unsuspecting public. No labels identify recalled and recycled meat products.

While it might not kill you to eat food with cooked feces in it, most consumers would prefer not to. But the inspection and recall system is geared around an industry that doesn't want to lose money on recalled product, not around consumers' best interests.

Twelve times since 1990 companies have recalled their meat product without destroying it, according to information received through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative govern-ment watchdog group in Washington, D.C. The total amount of meat product reworked, reprocessed, cooked, and sold again comes to 1.7 million pounds out of 5.2 million pounds recalled. The recalls were for a variety of problems including bacteria such as listeria, E. coli O157:H7, stones, bones, black spots, swollen cans, undercooked food, and spoilage.

Here are a few examples of recalled meat products that were cleaned up and resold or distributed to consumers as normal, high-quality goods:

* In November 1994, Monfort, Inc., which is owned by ConAgra, recalled more than 595,000 pounds of ground beef that had been contaminated with the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. The company was able to recover a total of 124,000 pounds in the recall. It destroyed 5,600 pounds. It cooked and resold 18,400 pounds to unsuspecting consumers, who ate the fecally contaminated product in their prepackaged foods.

* In February 1995, Hudson Foods recalled 3.1 million pounds of finely ground turkey that was found to have bones in the product. According to the USDA, more than 269,000 pounds was recovered and reworked. The ten-pound packages of "Delightful Farms Finely Ground Turkey" were originally distributed to retail food stores in fourteen states. Of the 269,000 pounds of turkey recovered, more than 188,000 pounds went to make pet food, about 8,000 was condemned, and more than 77,000 was approved by the USDA and exported, according to Archie Schaffer, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods, Inc., which bought Hudson Foods in January for a reported $600 million.

* In February 1993, Seitz Foods, Inc., of St. Joseph, Missouri, recalled 800,000 pounds of hot dogs contaminated with the sanitizer Control-It. The company added 0.5 gallons of the sanitizer to a 550 gallon of brine solution in an effort to extend shelf life, according to the USDA. More than 723,000 pounds of hot dogs were recovered and reworked.

* Beech Nut Nutrition Corporation recalled 528,760 pounds of contaminated baby food that had black spots on the product. Beech Nut officials say the spots were only cosmetic defects and that the food was safe to eat. They donated the product to starving children in Armenia and the country of Georgia.

* In 1995, the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain had more than 200,000 pounds of ground beef recalled from two different suppliers on two separate occasions. The recooked meat then went into their tacos with the USDA's blessing, according to a September 1997 Cox News Service article.

"It's disgusting," says Felicia Nestor, food safety director of the Government Accountability Project, which has monitored sanitary conditions at U.S. meat-processing and packing plants. She doesn't think the government should let companies reprocess contaminated meat. "One of the things that I really don't like about it is it decreases the incentive to produce a wholesome product to begin with."

There is also a real and increasing danger of food-borne illness. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimated in a 1996 report that as many as eighty-one million people become sick due to food-borne diseases each year, and that approximately 9,000 die as a result. The report also said that the number of pathogens is growing.

E. coli O157:H7 is one of the new deadly pathogens to have emerged in the past twenty years. The USDA's Economic Research Service estimates that up to 20,000 people are poisoned each year with this pathogen. If meat is found to contain E. coli O157:H7, it's because the product has been fecally contaminated.

"My mama told me not to eat it when I was little. She said, `It's not good for you,'" says Jesse Privett, laughing. Privett is a USDA inspector at a processing plant in Texas. He cracks jokes about fecal matter in the meat. But he also worries about the serious health effects of less-than-stellar industry standards. With more than twenty years' experience on the line, he's seen it all. When asked if the meat processors would do well by their customers to listen to his mama's advice, he replies, "Yeah, but they're not. They listen to the cash register. That's the problem."

"We have always maintained that we don't want to eat cattle feces, fully cooked or not," says Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, a food safety advocacy group. Donley's six-year-old son, Alex, died in 1993 after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The USDA argues that E. coli O157:H7 is present only in minute amounts. "We're not talking visible fecal contamination in that product," says Knight. "Visible fecal contamination would have to be trimmed and then reworked. If the fecal contamination had been, say, on a carcass, the carcass would be trimmed but there still could be some microbes there."

Jesse Majkowski, the director of the Food Safety and Inspection Service's Emergency Response Division, said that before the product can be cooked it is reexamined by government officials for visible signs of fecal contamination.

But even if E. coli O157:H7 is found only in minute amounts, it still means that the product has been fecally contaminated. In light of the fact that the USDA has a "zero tolerance" standard for fecal contamination, as a consumer you'd think that even minute traces mean that the standard has not been met.

Knight says otherwise: "The zero tolerance for fecal contamination is for visible fecal--if you saw visible fecal contamination."

Reworking or reprocessing a product in a process plant happens all the time. "Here's what's happening in a packing plant," says John Gould, the American Meat Institute's director of inspections and a former USDA meat inspector. "You're making frankfurters and you get broken frankfurters or they're off weight, they'll rework them. It means they'll put them back into a new production." Gould says that the Institute has no policy on cooking recovered recalled product

But handling bacteria-contaminated meat is different. "If they had a chili-manufacturing operation, or someone that wanted to do it for them, that would be acceptable," says Gould. "Obviously, for public interest, there's not too many people who are looking for that product. Most of it is dumped. A named chili company doesn't want it to be known that they go around and buy salvaged product, even though there's nothing wrong with it."

The last thing a meat-processing plant wants is unsold product. "We had condensation coming off a roof onto cattle and we weren't sure it there was bacteria or whatever in it, but it was not an edible surface, so we sent that to a chili plant because it cooks it to an internal temperature of 160 degrees," recalls Privett. Condensation, filth, fecal contamination, and bacteria are not the only things that lead to meat being reworked or reprocessed. "There's measle beasts, that's what we call them," Privett says. "It's a little parasite, a tape worm that gets into the muscle and if it's all over the carcass, it's condemned, but if you only find one or two in the head and carcass, then they're shipped out to a plant that cooks them."

Sometimes reworking a product means using a metal detector to scan for metal shavings. "We had some product a couple of years ago, chicken that was contaminated with flakes of metal and the company came in with a presentation on how they were going to run this through a metal detector," Majkowski says. The agency required the company to run the product through the detector twice in different positions. "We do have a directive on foreign material contamination. The machine has to be capable of getting down to 1/32 of an inch. That's about the size of a pepper grain, or smaller than that, and it's something that you can't feel in your mouth."

But that doesn't satisfy Privett. "There is no way to rework ground product, for aesthetics, or physical contaminants like fecal. You can cook it and kill the E. coli, but the physical contaminant is still in there. Which, for us old-timers, is not acceptable," he says.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has a different concern. "I would rather have that product cooked than sent to the landfill," she says. "If you take that product and just dump it, the bacteria will have the opportunity to grow and possibly spread into the water supply." But she adds, "It's definitely a lower quality product than one that isn't contaminated. It should be fully cooked and it should be worthless."

In January, the country's largest meatpacking plants implemented a new system to control contamination. It's called Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points, an industry-designed monitoring system that relies on companies to spot and then fix problems in the production line, where contamination could occur. USDA inspectors monitor each plant's control efforts. The system also calls, for the first time, for microbial testing. The USDA tests for salmonella, and the industry tests for generic E. coli contamination of samples.

The system was created in response to the growing number of incidents of new pathogens in the meat industry that made people sick, and in some cases killed them.

Three months into the new program, government inspectors have detained more than one million pounds of product, issued 265 warning letters to plants for violations of the law, coordinated fifty-three administrative actions, and managed USDA participation in eleven criminal cases in federal courts. Despite all those violations, the government also reports that the 300 plants that began using the new inspection system have a 92 percent compliance rate with the regulations.

Too bad the USDA and industry don't have a similar success rate when it comes to recovering recalled meat product. According to the USDA, there were 272 recalls from 1990 to 1997, with more than thirty-five million pounds of product recalled. But the USDA and the companies managed to recover only fifteen million pounds, or 43 percent of the tainted product. This means that approximately twenty million pounds of bad food was most likely consumed. Of the more than 9.7 million pounds of bacteria-contaminated meat recalled, the USDA and industry recovered only 4.5 million or 47 percent, according to USDA records.

The figures are even worse when it comes to E. coli 0157:H7, the deadly pathogen. Since 1990, 1.5 million pounds of meat, mostly ground beef, was recalled for this pathogen, but only 403,379 pounds were recovered--26 percent.

With all the emphasis on catching microbial contamination, inspectors like Privett fear that the traditional inspections for healthy animals will be left behind. Privett says the meat industry is now paying less attention to catching traditional problems like carcasses with tumors, growths, abscesses, fecal matter, pus, and other problems that may not kill the consumer but are nonetheless unappetizing.

The biggest change is allowing industry to police itself more under the new inspection system.

"We're paper-pushers now," says Gerald Lorge, a federal meat inspector. "We have to spend so much of our time trying to check [the plant's] documentation that we really don't have time to check the product anymore." Lorge is president of a local meat inspector's union.

"The bottom line is a company has to make a profit or it's going to replace the management people," adds Privett. "If they are super quality-conscious, they're going to catch most of it, but if they start going in the red, they're going to let it go."

Prevention is the key, according to Donley. "We need to have slower processing speeds to prevent contamination in the first place, and we also need to be doing on-farm research and dealing with the problem in the animals and keeping it out of the food chain."

Meanwhile, the millions of pounds of ground beef recovered from the Hudson Foods August recall sits frozen, in storage, in northwest Arkansas, waiting for the USDA's investigation to be completed and for someone to decide what to do with it.

Will they cook it up and serve it to consumers? "We have not ruled out anything," says Tyson's Schaffer. "All I can tell you is no decision has been made."

Paul Cuadros is an investigative reporter who works for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:recalled, contaminated meat usually cooked and re-sold
Author:Cuadros, Paul
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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