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.
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.