Just How Safe Is Our Meat?

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

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

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But other types of food-borne infections appear to be on the rise. One example is E. coli. In 2005 and 2006, the incidence of E. coli 0157 infections from food consumption increased, despite declines in the preceding years. Several strains of salmonella have also been appearing in greater numbers in poultry.

The culprit or culprits remain a matter of hot dispute, and the disagreements are likely to top discussion in Congress over whether the government should take a stronger role in regulating meat.

One point of contention is the quality and rigor of the inspection process, including the training and size of the inspector force. Currently, the USDA employs 7,500 inspectors for 6,300 federal plants, the majority of which are slaughterhouses. That's roughly one inspector per plant, although in practice teams of inspectors tend to cover multiple plants. The USDA is also currently operating with an overall vacancy rate of 9 percent for inspectors, officials said.

Food safety groups have voiced criticism over these numbers, saying that there are too few eyeballs watching too much meat. "The USDA is underfunded and understaffed," said Sarah Kline of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food safety watchdog. "We are talking about enormous facilities with inspectors needing to be at different points in the facilities. What you end up with is a lot of beef that is not being looked at."

USDA officials disagree, calling the vacancy rates "tolerable" and saying that the agency has "100 percent continuous inspection" inside the slaughterhouses. (In the Westland/Hallmark incident, it was outside the slaughterhouse, in what is known as the ante mortem inspection site, that the USDA was unaware of the plant's alleged infractions.)

A second question among politicians is whether the USDA is doing enough to make sure that plants have adequate safety plans in place. In 2002, an administrator for the USDA, Garry McKee, told members of the meatpacking lobby that many so-called safety protocols were simply ineffective. "Plants are not validating their interventions," he said. "Consequently they are not killing pathogens or even reducing them in their plants. Some are not even recognizing that pathogens exist. That's like playing catch with a hornet's nest and not recognizing you might get stung."

Since then, Eamich said, the USDA has taken action to strengthen safety plans. DeLauro's office says the action has been insufficient. In a statement this week DeLauro said the USDA had yet to address the deficiencies in its infrastructure that continue to generate problems.

Not to be entirely eclipsed by policy issues is the question of proper farming practice. In December, researchers at Kansas State University found that cattle fed with distiller's grain, an ethanol byproduct, are more likely to carry the strain of E. coli that causes illness in humans. With ethanol demand booming, plants have turned to distiller's grain as a cheap feed source. But like other farming practices designed to more quickly fatten cattle, it may also be contributing to more risky meat as cattle become more prone to illness.