A central focus in the controversy over the use of ammoniated hydroxide to sanitize beef trimmings are the claims that the source meat may be highly pathogenic, otherwise destined for dog food or laced with dangerous bacteria.

So why would the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) publicly state that beef trimmings are “high risk,” which would seem an embarrassing admission?

The fact that USDA knowingly allows “high risk” meat to be shipped into commerce in containers marked “USDA Inspected & Passed” is surprising.  But true.  And it is the driving force energizing industry innovators to devise new antimicrobial interventions to protect consumers from foodborne disease.

We need to dissect this driving force to understand, as Paul Harvey used to say, “The Rest of the Story.”

USDA declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant in 1994, forbidding its shipment into commerce.  The agency proclaimed “zero tolerance” for this type of E. coli. The agency also required all meat and poultry plants to implement a new system of production and inspection entitled Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).  In a phased-in implementation, the largest plants implemented HACCP by Jan. 26, 1998. 

 

Under contract with NASA and the U.S. Army, Pillsbury developed HACCP for plants making products that would be exposed to what’s called a “kill step” (such as cooking) to eliminate harmful bacteria, and thus create consistently safe, ready-to-eat consumer items.

USDA, however, mandated HACCP at all meat plants, even those producing raw meat and poultry.  These plants produce food not exposed to a kill step.

USDA-style HACCP thus suffered from a fatal flaw from day one, because in the absence of a kill step, raw food plants are incapable of producing food with a zero tolerance for E. coli.  In spite of this obvious discrepancy, USDA tenaciously adhered to its impossible zero tolerance demand on raw meat and poultry. The agency hoped against hope that the mere declaration of E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant would somehow regulate the pathogen into extinction.

  

E. coli and Salmonella are classified as “enteric” bacteria, meaning by strict definition that they emanate from within animal intestines and, by extension, proliferate in manure, which is found extensively on live animal hides. Intestines and hides are found in slaughter plants, but not in retail meat markets, restaurants or hospital cafeterias.

In all likelihood, such downstream entities innocently purchase previously contaminated meat from their suppliers. These destinations operate under the false assumption that incoming meat, bearing the USDA Mark of Inspection, is safe. Yet even USDA has issued written documents revealing that the agency does NOT equate the mark with product safety.

Although USDA has declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant, the agency conveniently states that the E. coli is an adulterant only in ground beef and in boneless trimmings destined for ground beef.  However, USDA allows intact cuts of beef surface-contaminated with E. coli to be shipped into commerce.

Retail meat markets, and to a lesser degree restaurants, purchase intact cuts as “boxed beef.”  Boxed beef includes intact cuts such as chucks, rounds, sirloin, etc., which are then further processed at those downstream locations into steaks, roasts and ground beef.

These intact cuts, which may be surface-contaminated with  E. coli, can legally be shipped into commerce, under the guise that the bacteria are not adulterants but merely contaminants when existing on intact cuts.  

However, where they are further processed at downstream entities, these contaminants somehow morph into lethal pathogens and, if detected in finished products, become the responsibility of the entity that did the processing.

Processing the intact cuts produces massive amounts of boneless trimmings, which are destined for ground beef.  Thus, it is easy to understand why USDA classifies the boneless trimmings as “high risk,” because the agency knowingly permits slaughter plants to ship intact cuts into commerce that may be surface-contaminated by invisible E.coli bacteria “contaminants,” not yet considered adulterants.

  

Complicating this scenario is USDA’s historical unwillingness to conduct tracebacks to the source of contamination, which, in the case of E. coli and Salmonella, is invariably the slaughter plant.

From Jan. 1, 2009 to  Nov. 30, 2010, USDA labs detected E. coli O157:H7 in 64 samples collected from USDA-inspected processing plants. 

In 29 of these 64 positives, the samples were obtained at plants that purchased all their meat from one source slaughter supplier. In all 29 cases, USDA refused to conduct a traceback to the one well-documented source, but instead assessed full liability against the victimized establishment further downstream that had processed the meat purchased from that supplier.

Several years ago, a then-USDA microbiologist who suggested that in such cases the agency should conduct tracebacks to the source slaughter plant was told the agency “won’t get involved in a witch hunt.”  Instead, the hunt for contaminated meat starts and finishes at the downstream destination.

As such, Americans are virtually guaranteed ongoing disease outbreaks from contaminated meat, because USDA refuses to implement enforcement actions at the source of the contamination, preferring to use its regulatory authority at smaller downstream plants that are easier enforcement prey and lack the political clout and financial wherewithal enjoyed by the multinational slaughter behemoths.

The top four slaughter plants in the U.S. kill 88 percent of our feedlot-finished steers and heifers, and constitute a formidable potential legal adversary to an agency fearful of litigation or political pressure. 

 

Since USDA allows slaughter plants to ship E. coli-laced intact cuts into commerce, the pathogen is somewhat ubiquitous (although still just a “contaminant,” mind you).

This intentional USDA oversight has spawned the need for development of additional antimicrobial interventions, such as treatment with ammonia hydroxide.  We should not pillory BPI or Eldon Roth for using this intervention, because it actually makes ground beef safer.

Admittedly, whether the treated beef should be labeled as such is another issue entirely.  Nevertheless, because USDA allows the bug free entry into commerce, American consumers benefit by entrepreneurs such as Eldon Roth for pioneering interventions that make our food safer.

  

Consumers who prefer that their meat not be subjected to chemicals such as lactic acid and ammonia hydroxide should not place the blame or target companies that are making “high risk” (to use USDA’s terminology) meat safer.

They should instead put USDA at the top of their radar, because the agency intentionally allows potentially risky meat to be labeled with the valueless USDA Mark of Inspection and shipped into commerce.

USDA has utilized vexatious ingenuity in concocting an allegedly “science based” deregulated system of limited inspection at the monolithic source slaughter plants to subtly forward all pathogen liability downstream to supposedly noncompliant processors and on to consumers, who are considered negligent if they don’t cook contaminated meat thoroughly.

The Eldon Roths of this world are saving lives, while USDA’s policies imperil public health.  These agency policies were fabricated in the 1990s, and continue to cause heartburn for the agency’s current leaders who have been burdened w
ith indefensible practices. 

 

Industry leaders who improve the safety of our food are the unsung heroes here, while USDA is the true villain, and needs to be brought to accountability. 

 

Food Safety News previously published my in-depth analysis of this USDA scandal.  That commentary can be accessed here and provided historical facts that better delineate how USDA has pulled its pseudo-scientific wool over our eyes.

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Photo of John Munsell John Munsell

John Munsell ran a USDA-inspected meat plant for 34 years, which had been in the family for 59 years. Raised in Miles City, Montana and educated at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT, John returned to the family business subsequent to employment at Continental Oil and Target Stores. Having sold the business in 2005, John subsequently opened a deli/bakery at a local retail grocery store, and is currently employed by Miles Community College as a Biofuels/Renewable Energy Coordinator. Married, with two daughters and six grandchildren, John’s passionate focus has been to reveal institutionalized shortcomings in USDA’s deregulated meat inspection program, and to protect the rights of small plants to remain in business in the absence of unethical government enforcement actions.