Producing meat that is as safe as it can possibly be is good for business and good for consumers. Today we have great news for consumers: the food safety strategies that USDA announced they will require in ground beef plants are already in place in the U.S. meat industry. Every company in the U.S. that processes beef for hamburger is already using one or even a number of technologies to reduce the chances that E. coli O157:H7 will be found in hamburger. These technologies are included in something called our Good Management Practices. But by requiring that we shift these technologies into food safety plans called HACCP plans, USDA will have greater authority to shut plants down.
The unfortunate reality is that USDA’s new regulations won’t make E. coli O157:H7 go away, but it may make some plants go away. Today, E. coli O157:H7 is rare in ground beef and becoming more rare. Once this new policy goes into effect, while we may change where we file our food safety plans, we won’t change our food safety technologies or our commitment to reducing E. coli O157:H7 as much as we possibly can.
The meat industry knows that only thorough cooking by food preparers can guarantee with 100 percent certainty that E. coli O157:H7 is eliminated from every hamburger we consume. It's not a fact we try to hide. Every package of fresh meat contains a safe handling label, which says, "Some food products may contain bacteria that could cause illness if the product is mishandled or cooked improperly.”
Cooking instructions and other pieces of safe handling information aren't nearly as exciting or interesting as new policies and dramatic enforcement actions against companies that on rare occasion produce ground beef that tests positive for E. coli O157:H7, but this information is extraordinarily effective. Like so many consumer products -- from cars to car seats -- our products are safe when used properly.
AMI will consider carefully the policy changes that USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is proposing on E. coli O157:H7. But the goal of any food safety policy should not be to hit a target that is out of reach - like producing ground beef that is 100 percent free of E. coli O157:H7. Instead, it should be to ensure good public health outcomes. That is why as USDA moves forward to refine and implement its new policy, FSIS officials and all involved in food safety policy should consider the following points:
- E. coli O157:H7 is rare in ground beef, occurring at a rate of less than one percent. USDA data collected through its ground beef sampling program show that E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef is declining in incidence. We have not seen any data to support the statement that E. coli O157:H7 is becoming more prevalent.
- E. coli O157:H7 infections are rare foodborne diseases. Salmonellosis and Campylobacteriosis infections occur approximately nine times more often than E. coli O157:H7 infections.
- Like the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, E. coli infections also are declining in incidence. From 2000 to 2001, E. coli O157:H7 cases dropped 21 percent.
- Policies based on a flawed premise - like the notion that E. coli O157:H7 can be eliminated in every case - are doomed to fail. It's like banning the common cold. It's an admirable goal, but does not appear to be achievable given the state of the science.
Until the day when we have the technology to produce live animals and raw beef products that are free of bacteria, we will continue to produce wholesome beef products that in their raw form occasionally contain bacteria -- and that always should be cooked. Neither the meat industry nor the federal government can change the fact that bacteria are present on all raw agricultural products, including meat, at some level; it is a disservice to consumers to suggest that we can.
AMI represents the interests of packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey products and their suppliers throughout North America. Together, AMI's members produce 95 percent of the beef, pork, lamb and veal products and 70 percent of the turkey products in the U.S. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute provides legislative, regulatory, public relations, technical, scientific and educational services to the industry. Its affiliate, the AMI Foundation, is a separate 501(c)3 organization that conducts research, education and information projects for the industry.