Just How Safe Is Our Meat?

The picture is mixed, but calls for better inspection grow louder.


Sen. Dick Durbin on "Meet the Press" February 17, 2008.

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Corrected on 2/29/08: An earlier version of this article misidentified the home state of Sen. Dick Durbin. He is from Illinois.

In The Jungle, his landmark exposé of the meatpacking industry, Upton Sinclair described slaughterhouse conditions and meat contamination so horrific that the government stepped in and created a new agency to monitor the business: the Food and Drug Administration.

A century later, is a similar intervention in order? In the wake of the largest beef recall in U.S. history, at least two members of Congress, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both of whom sit on agricultural committees, say yes. They have called for a new department that would consolidate some of the duties now split between the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Food safety," DeLauro said, "ought to be of a high enough priority that we have a single agency that deals with it and not an agency that is responsible for promoting a product, selling a product, and then as an afterthought dealing with how our food supply is safe."

In fact, the prospects of a new agency's being approved in the immediate future appear slim. But the recall means that more moderate reforms, such as granting greater inspection power to the USDA, will now be seriously discussed.

Keeping the nation's meat supply safe is no 6-ounce matter, and the arguments in support of such proposals are not hard to find. In 2007, there were more than 20 beef recalls in the United States, totaling 33.4 million pounds—the largest single-year haul in history. Most were prompted by the public health threat of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

Inadequate oversight, a related problem, has surfaced in the current recall, after workers at a slaughterhouse owned by Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. allegedly failed to notify USDA officials that they were slaughtering cattle too weak to stand up and therefore at risk of being diseased.

But just how safe (or unsafe) is our meat supply? Parsing the statistics and available data presents a nuanced picture.

Viewed narrowly, the likelihood of a person dying from contaminated meat or meat products is small, though not unheard of. In 2002, a nationwide recall of 27 million pounds of poultry containing listeria bacteria was associated with nine deaths and more than 50 illnesses in the Northeast. But that was an extreme case. The top five largest meat recalls in history, with the exception of the 2002 case, didn't involve a single death, according to published media reports.

Even more unlikely would be death from mad cow disease, a crippling neurological illness that turns the cortex of cow brains into a spongelike mush. Since 2004, the USDA has tested nearly 800,000 cattle for mad cow disease and found only two positive cases, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said. "We have a series of interlocking safeguards in place to protect the meat supply," she said, noting that inspectors remove the brain and adjoining spinal column of slaughtered cows to keep those organs from coming into contact with the rest of the meat.

Death, of course, is a high threshold; illnesses from meat and other food products are much more common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne hazards are the cause of 76 million cases of illness each year, including 325,000 hospitalizations. Two million of those reports are caused by bacteria commonly found in meat. Recent recalls have highlighted this phenomenon: A 2007 recall of Banquet Turkey and Chicken Pot Pies because of salmonella contamination was preceded by several months of reports of related illnesses in at least 30 states.

In some cases, the USDA, which inspects meat, and the FDA, which inspects other food sources, like produce, appear to have the temporary upper hand in the battle against certain types of bacteria. A recent report from the CDC, for instance, found that the incidence of infections caused by listeria, campylobacter (often associated with raw milk and undercooked poultry), and shigella has decreased significantly from the late 1990s.