Food & Agriculture

PBS Frontline Interview with CFA’s Carol Tucker Foreman For Its Spring 2002 Program Modern Meat

Frontline: Are you concerned about the safety of the meat supply?

CTF: I am concerned about the safety of the meat supply. People like to say Americans have the safest food in the world. The evidence is that it’s not safe enough. We have 5,000 deaths a year attributed to food poisoning from common bacteria. Many of these are traced to meat and poultry. I’d say that’s not acceptable.

Frontline: How good is our information about food-borne illness?

CTF: It’s a lot better than it used to be. Back in the ’80s when the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] first put out the figures, they said that there were between 5 and 38 million cases of food-borne illness every year. That’s a bit like saying, “I live somewhere between Washington and St. Louis.” It just wasn’t a meaningful figure. Today, I think the figures — although they’re still a low-ball estimate — are probably pretty good. The CDC says 76 million cases, 350,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year.

Frontline: From all foods?

CTF: From all foods.

Frontline: And meat might be?

CTF: I think meat, poultry, and eggs account for over half of that.

Frontline: Why is it so difficult to figure out the hard numbers on food-borne illness?

CTF: I think there are two or three reasons why it’s been hard in the past to get better figures. One is that with regard to salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis, it was hard to trace back to what you’d eaten. Those are not diseases that you come down with immediately after eating. The incubation period can be as long as two weeks for these diseases. Do you remember what you ate two weeks ago and where you ate it?

Another reason that the data wasn’t good is that nobody cared. They thought salmonellosis is just a bellyache. It wasn’t one of those sexy things that research scientists looked into or that public health officials spent much time with.

The advent of E. coli 0157:H7 in the West Coast outbreak of E. coli in hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993 changed that. When suddenly you had children dying terrible deaths, then people began to recognize that it was more than a bellyache, and it was worthwhile having good data.

What has made it much easier to get good data in recent years is that the CDC has been able to use DNA typing of bacteria. So they take a culture from someone who’s gotten ill in St. Louis and compare it to someone who became ill in Atlanta, and someone else in Wyoming. The bacteria will all have the same DNA. That makes it possible to trace it back to the source.

Frontline: How safe is the meat supply?

CTF: None of us really know how safe the meat supply is. We do know that there are still 76 million cases of food-borne illness every year, thousands of hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths. We know people get sick from cross-contamination that comes from contaminated meat. And they get sick from meat that hasn’t been cooked enough to kill the bacteria.

We know that people get listeriosis from meat that is packaged and cooked and says “ready to eat” on it. We know that people get sick from campylobacter in chickens. So the meat supply may be safer than it was 10 years ago, but it sure isn’t safe enough. …

Frontline: We talk about a high level of food-borne illness, and even of deaths related to food-borne illness. But you’re not hearing on the news about large outbreaks. Where are the victims of food-borne illness?

CTF: Well, I know about them. The Chicago Tribune ran a four-part series a couple of months ago about children who’d been made ill by contaminated food in school lunches over a period of several years in Chicago. Three years ago you had the Sizzler E.coli O157:H7 outbreak, where contaminated meat dripped on fresh vegetables and one person died and a number were made ill.

There was the Ball Park Franks listeria outbreak three years ago, where 16 people died, and five women had babies that were born dead, because it was fatal for fetuses. Those were really played rather prominently in the news media. …

Frontline: Do you support irradiating ground beef?

CTF: I’m not opposed to irradiating ground beef. If I were supplying a nursing home, I’d probably make sure that the meat came in irradiated. My concern is that I don’t want a system that says you can have fecal matter all over it, and then irradiate it. Irradiated poop won’t make you sick, but it’s still poop. …

There are some worker safety concerns with irradiation. There are some environmental safety concerns. It’s very expensive, and if it’s not used exactly right, it makes the meat taste really bad. Those last two are important reasons why irradiation hasn’t been adopted more widely. ..

Frontline: How is the consumer to know what the good meat is and what the bad meat is?

CTF: One of the problems with the present system is that the consumer has no way to tell what is bad meat. You can’t see the disease-causing bacteria. And every package of meat that’s sold in the United States of America has a seal on it that says, “Inspected and approved, United States Department of Agriculture.” The seal is there. You expect it to be clean and safe, and the truth is that it’s not.

Frontline: Tell me how the outbreak of E. coli in hamburgers at Jack in the Box in 1993 changed things.

CTF: It changed the public view of food-borne illness. Before that it was bellyache; now it was little children dying terrible deaths. And the Jack in the Box outbreak exposed the fact that meat processing and consumer eating habits had changed radically since the law [regulating the meat packing industry] was passed in 1906. Second, it exposed the fact that the meat inspection system has not changed a bit since 1906. We were using methods that were essentially a century old in an industry that had changed radically.

Frontline: Jack in the Box made changes in their safety procedures right away because they were under fire, they were in chaos. Did the government look to Jack in the Box and see what they had done? Were they inspired or influenced in any way to put in new regulations by how they handled it?

CTF: I think that government was impressed by the steps that Jack in the Box took, because [the company] did something radical. They said, “We have responsibility for controlling pathogens in raw meat. … We want you to show us that the pathogen level is kept at a reasonable rate.” … As a contractual matter, they started holding the people who sell to them to a higher standard of pathogen testing. We asked that that be built in to the government’s inspection system and to not just rely on private, contractual arrangements.

Frontline: And so new regulations developed with this idea of objective, microbiological studies?

CTF: New regulations were developed with the idea that there needed to be some objective measures for determining whether or not a company was actually producing a product that met a public health standard. …

It used to be that the only person in a meat plant responsible for food safety was the federal inspector, who was told: “You can’t put the seal of inspection on meat unless it’s safe.” Nothing in the law said that the meat plant owner had a responsibility for producing a safe product. Now we’ve switched to something called the Pathogen Reduction Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point method of inspection. It’s known as HACCP for short. The company now has responsibility for producing a safe product, and the role of the inspector is to be sure that they follow the rules, to be there to make sure nothing bad happens.

We don’t know yet whether or not this system is going to work to produce safer food. It appears to be working because tests done show that there is a decline in disease-causing bacteria in the meat that’s been tested. I think the key element is whether we will continue to have some objective measure of whether plants need a public health standard. The industry wants to get rid of those objective measures. … If you take that standard away, I think we will have gone backwards.

Frontline: How do we guarantee that it’s being done, that that standard is being met?

CTF:Under the present rule, federal inspectors take samples of meat from many companies and test it to see how much salmonella is there. If it is above a certain level, then it is clear that the plant is not operating at an acceptable level — that its HACCP program isn’t doing what it was supposed to do.

If a plant fails the salmonella test, the Department of Agriculture says, “We’ve got a problem, guys. You need to fix your HACCP program.” And then they come and test again. And if the plant fails a second time, the department waits and goes back in and says, “You still need to make some changes here. It’s not working the way it’s supposed to.”

And then, after a while, they test them again. If the plant fails the third time, the Department of Agriculture is supposed to withdraw inspection and close that plant down, because it’s clear that they either can’t or won’t meet a public health goal.

However, in the one case where USDA did, in fact, try to close down a plant, a federal court stepped in and said, “You know, the law never anticipated this kind of testing.” … [As a result of that decision] there’s a real question about whether or not the department will be able to continue to set and enforce limits on disease-causing bacteria in meat and poultry products. …

But the company in Texas [Supreme Beef] that the USDA tried to close down had 20 percent of its product contaminated with salmonella. And a Federal District Court judge said, “That’s OK. You don’t have the power to stop that.” And the United States Senate has now said, “We’re not going to take the steps to make sure the USDA has authority to close down that plant.” So there are plants out there with 20 percent and maybe greater amounts of their product contaminated with salmonella bacteria. …

Frontline: How significant is the Supreme Beef decision?

CTF: It is hard to overrate its importance. It could be interpreted as saying there is no amount of disease-causing bacteria in raw meat or poultry that would cause it to violate the law. There is no amount that would make it unacceptable for the USDA seal of approval. The court went back and quoted a decision that is 30 years old, in which another court said [that] housewives and cooks are not stupid, they know you have to cook meat and poultry. That completely ignores the problem of cross-contamination.

I can take contaminated meat into my kitchen and cook it perfectly and still get sick because contaminated meat contaminates everything it touches: the counter, the cooking utensils, food that we may eat raw or that has already been cooked. And the court ignored that. The court also ignored the fact that today Americans spend over half of their food dollars eating out.

Now, neither the judge nor I can control what happens in the kitchen of a restaurant where we eat. We have no control over what happens back there. And, in fact, many cases of food-borne illness are traced to mishandling of contaminated meat in a restaurant kitchen.

Frontline: Supreme Beef went out of business. How does the case continue to go forward?

CTF: Supreme Beef has filed for bankruptcy, first for reorganization, and now for dissolution. And their company is not doing business now. Their argument to the court has been, “The government put us out of business and you ought to continue this case because if the court rules the government didn’t have authority to shut us down, then we will come back and sue the government for damages.”

Now, Supreme Beef was turning out product where sometimes as much as 20 percent of it was contaminated with salmonella. They failed the government’s test four times. The USDA allowed them to continue producing for months before they tried to shut them down. It was almost a year. And that company was the single largest provider of ground beef to the school lunch program.

Now, why is the rest of the meat industry defending a company that was certainly not one of its best performers, that did nothing for the reputation of the industry, that did nothing to protect consumer confidence?

Frontline: And the answer is?

CTF: I’d like to have an answer to that question. I have no idea. …

Frontline: You hear of companies making a lot of efforts to improve their safety standards. But when you look at the details of those regulations, you see that companies have to submit a HACCP plan, but the FSIS doesn’t actually have to approve it. So who knows whether the HACCP plan is a good one? You have standards set for salmonella, yet many companies are able to get away with breaking those. What good are these rules if there are so many loopholes in them?

CTF: The HACCP system was not designed to be part of a government regulatory program. It wasn’t set up to help government assure that food met some minimum public health standard. It was set up to be an industry quality assurance program. And it has worked very well for that purpose.

The proposal was made that it should become part of government inspection. Consumer organizations originally would not support that. It looked like an honor system to us. You’re right, FSIS didn’t approve the plan. And inspectors were told, “Don’t step in and change things. Let’s see if the plant’s going to do it the right way.” We were very uncomfortable with that.

The key change that was made that made it possible for us to support HACCP was the creation of an objective measure. That what happened in a plant that had a HACCP program would meet a public health standard.

We said to the department, “You have to show us that food coming off the end of the line in a plant that has an HACCP program is cleaner, safer, and less likely to cause food-borne illness than food that was produced in another plant.” And the department decided that that was a worthwhile provision here, and set up this objective measure. That’s the salmonella standard.

It was only a beginning point. We expected that it would be expanded and that it would be tightened. Instead, what appears to be happening is that the one objective measure may well be abolished.

With that objective measure, the USDA has data that shows that the number of birds contaminated with salmonella and the number of carcasses contaminated with salmonella has dropped. So that’s good news. We can’t tell that fewer people are getting sick as a result because it’s just too soon. But it’s a reasonable expectation that if there is less salmonella, fewer people are likely to get ill. If the objective measure of performance is removed, we will oppose continuing with the HACCP program.

I don’t know what we can support in its place. The old inspection system wasn’t adequate. But without this objective measure, the new system is a farce.

… If you do away with the pathogen standards, then the HACCP truly becomes what its critics have charged — an honor system. … What we’re looking for with the salmonella standard verification is whether or not the program is working. If that verification and those standards disappear, I think we’d be faced with saying to the public,”You just have to trust each company.” And that means people would have to know where the meat comes from, and of course they don’t. …

Frontline: Is it frustrating for you, given all you have fought for, to make these changes, to get the new inspection system in?

CTF: I should have quit when I was ahead. It was time to retire. I am angry about the Supreme Beef decision. And I am both angry and disappointed at the USDA’s reaction to it. The Bush administration went to court in October and defended salmonella performance standards. They argued that they were legal and that they should be kept. And then the decision came down and the USDA said they are not important at all, we don’t need them.”

And although the decision specifically dealt only with ground beef, the department has chosen not to continue to enforce the standards on carcasses or in ground poultry. They could do that or at least they could try to do that until they are told not to, but they have said it is not important.

They haven’t tried to enforce … [the standards] … on carcasses and poultry. And starting about two months ago, the department now says they think the standard is wrong.

Frontline: What made the change?

CTF: Well, there is no new scientific data and there are no new studies that say that the salmonella standard was wrong. … They don’t have any new data. In fact, they continue to acknowledge that, since the pathogen reduction and HACCP rule went into effect, salmonella rates have been cut, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. So it has been effective and there is no new data that says it is not a good standard, but the department has walked away from it. And these are people who say they want science-based standards. This change is driven solely by political pressure from the industry. …

Frontline: Let me read you something that Patrick Boyle at the American Meat Institute said about Supreme Beef. He said that it is not that the beef industry that is fighting standards that are meaningful, that improve the wholesomeness of the product. The beef industry has reservations about unscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of our product.

CTF: Mr. Boyle has no scientific studies that refute the value of the salmonella standard. … They don’t have any science that says that they are not scientific. They have asserted that they are not scientific. I could go into detail and say all of the reasons why, but they basically just assert it is not scientific.

Frontline: Is the issue about whether these are scientific or not?

CTF: No. The real issue here is, Does the meat industry have a responsibility to control the presence of disease-causing bacteria in raw meat and poultry? Historically, they did not. Since 1995, however, they have. Supreme Beef takes us back to the time where they had no legal responsibility to control the bugs that make people sick. We are really not arguing about science, we are arguing about whether the industry has the responsibility for turning out a product that has relatively low levels of pathogens.

Their argument is that you have to cook it. That is their science. … I agree that consumers have a responsibility to handle food properly and to cook it well-done. But all of the meat comes to me with that seal of approval, USDA inspected and approved. Do they have to put that seal of approval on all meat? Do they have to put it on ground beef that is lousy, that is ripe with bacteria? Or is there some limit, some standard that the industry has to meet before it gets that seal? Their argument is that there is no standard. As long as it is raw, there is no limit on how much bacteria it can have.

What I really don’t understand about Patrick Boyle’s argument is that 95 to 98 percent of the plants tested for salmonella passed on the first test, only five failed three times and two of those were owned by Supreme Beef. Everybody in the industry passed this test. Why is Patrick Boyle defending the bottom dwellers who would take no steps to meet a standard that wasn’t very high? Why is he defending them?

Frontline: Why do you think he is defending them?

CTF: Damned if I know.

Frontline: The government doesn’t have mandatory recall authority. Is that acceptable? How do you feel about that?

CTF: I think the government should have mandatory recall authority. I sat in rooms and negotiated voluntary recalls with companies. And their lawyers would quarrel and quibble and hold out for day after day, and by the time you finally got them to recall the meat, guess what? A lot of it had been eaten.

Frontline: So they have a motivation to delay?

CTF: A mandatory system would take the bad actors, and not let them get by with that. Most companies try to produce clean meat. Most companies do voluntary recalls. Rules are written for those who will not play within the social contract without a legal mandate to do so.

Frontline: Patrick Boyle says that there has been no company that has not gone along with a voluntary recall requested by the USDA.

CTF: Ultimately, but they delay. And if you [ask for a recall], say, on that ground beef, and somebody says, how do you know? How much do I have to recall? How do you know that it was that lot and this lot? And you delay five days or six days, 30 percent of it’s gone, and the company never gets that back. Somebody ate it, and they got paid for it.

The government has the authority to recall baby carriages and a lot of other consumer products. None of those products come to you with a U.S. government seal of approval. I do believe that getting the seal of approval from the U.S. government, getting that imprimatur of acceptability, imposes more responsibility on the meat industry than on those people who don’t get a seal of approval. It’s the only product that the government approves for you in advance. Yes, I think they ought to be able to recall it. … You can recall bath seats and toys and whistles and lots of other things, but not the food that we know kills 5,000 people every year.

Reprinted with permission of Frontline. For more on Frontline’s Modern Meat program, see