April 2008
From the State Vet's Office

Meat Recalls…What’s Going On?

by Dr. Tony Frazier

As a society, we have grown pretty accustomed to recalls. You hear about recalls every week on the news. An automobile company recalls hundreds of thousands of vehicles because of a possible safety hazard. A toy company recalls a million toys for toddlers because a part may come off and be swallowed by a child or contain lead. Laptop computer batteries are recalled because they may cause fires. And then there was the recent 143 million pound beef recall — and that on the heels of a 21.7 million-pound recall of frozen ground beef last fall. Recalls are part of the American way of life. I cannot address the recall of toys, vehicles or computer batteries, but I can address meat recalls.

Very soon after I left private practice and went to work for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, I was sent to College Station, TX. The purpose was to attend a school put on by USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) on the campus of Texas A&M. The school was to train me to be a Supervisory Veterinary Medical Officer for Meat Inspection. The reason for this training was because the Alabama Meat Inspection Program was, as it is today, under the Office of the State Veterinarian. The Director of Meat Inspection, Dr. Robert Barlow is an associate state veterinarian and oversees the program in our state. My entire career with the State Department of Agriculture and Industries has, to some degree, involved meat inspection.

About the time I became involved with the program, meat inspection was beginning to undergo a radical change. For decades, meat inspection was done by the senses. It was called organoleptic inspection. Basically that means if it looked clean, felt clean and smelled clean, then it was probably clean. In 1994, there was a very serious outbreak of a new food borne bacteria, known as E. coli 0157H7. I did not see the meat, but it is likely it looked to be very wholesome and safe. The mission of meat inspection has always been to assure meat is safe, wholesome and truthfully labeled. After that outbreak, it was decided more modern methods like bacterial testing could better accomplish that mission.

In 1996, the government began implementing a new type of inspection known as HACCP and Pathogen Reduction. HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. HACCP actually came from a private food company providing their products for NASA astronauts. It stands to reason a severe food-borne illness resulting in vomiting and diarrhea on a NASA mission could jeopardize the whole mission. HACCP simply goes through each step of a process like slaughter, raw ground, raw not ground and others. At each step of the process the question is asked, "Is there a reasonable chance of biological, chemical or physical contamination of the product?" If the answer to any of the three contaminants is yes, then the hazard must be addressed. To address the hazard, there must be steps taken to reduce or eliminate the hazard.

Prior to HACCP, the government took all responsibility for meat inspection. HACCP heavily involves industry. In fact, each company develops, within guidelines, their own HACCP Plan. The companies’ HACCP Plan tells what they will do to assure the safety of their product. The government inspector then verifies the company is carrying out their HACCP Plan. This, along with microbiological sampling and environmental testing by both the company and the government inspection personnel, has made meat and meat products produced in the United States extremely safe.

However, this level of food safety has resulted in a larger number of recalls. These recalls could be a result of a company not following their HACCP Plan, having products test positive for dangerous bacteria or a violation of other regulations directly impacting product safety. The recent recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef was a result of the company slaughtering downer cows over a period of more than 2 years. The slaughter of downer cows has been banned since early 2004. The reason for the ban of slaughtering of downer cattle was to reduce the possibility of any cattle with BSE entering the food chain. Another firewall put in place to prevent any possibility of BSE becoming a food safety issue was to remove all nervous tissue and other tissues where the BSE agent could be found. These tissues, known as specified risk materials, are removed from all cattle slaughtered at 30 months of age or older. Even though all specified risk materials (SRMs) are removed from these carcasses, the fact remains the plant was harvesting down cattle.

The United States has the safest food supply in the world, and continues to fine tune the system assuring the meat you buy is as safe as it can possibly be. Do the recent meat recalls mean meat is becoming less safe? Absolutely not. It simply means we have a system in place to find potentially contaminated product and get it out of the food chain. But finally, a simple rule of thumb to remember is to cook meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. That temperature will kill all of the pathogenic organisms known to cause food-borne illness.