March 16, 2009

For the Record

Last year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was kind enough to publish an op-ed I wrote about beef recalls and beef safety. The bottom line message, I suppose, was that the rash of beef recalls was disturbing and that purchasing beef from local farmers was a good way to take personal action that could -- in addition to getting some good meat and supporting local food systems -- help spur much-needed change in beef cattle farming and processing.

Some time later, my wife's aunt (my aunt in-law?) informed me that a LTE had been published in response to my op-ed (link here, scroll down). Authored by Mr. William R. Henning, the Emeritus Professor of Animal and Food Science at Penn State University, the letter basically said U.S. beef is extraordinarily safe:

Strict and numerous government regulations along with strong industry leadership protect the safety of our beef. For example, each of the 100 million animals that enter the human food supply annually is closely inspected by veterinarians and trained inspectors. (emphasis mine)

I had been meaning to respond to this letter on my poorly read blog for some time. This finally got me to do it:

President Obama on Saturday nominated Margaret Hamburg, former New York City health commissioner, to head the FDA, and announced he is taking new measures to address food safety.

During his weekly radio address, Obama said a lack of funds and staff at FDA in recent years have left the agency with only enough resources to inspect just 7,000 of 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses annually. (emphasis mine)

Now the USDA is responsible for the safety of beef via inspections, etc. But surely the experience of the FDA couldn't be that different than the USDA, could it? Um, no, it couldn't:

The legal requirements for inspections, combined with a reduced force, mean that the inspection goals have not been met for years, according to inspectors. They say the workload is unrealistic, reducing their duties to cursory checks of company records, not the physical examination of meat, poultry and eggs. ...

But one of those inspectors was responsible for a total of five processing plants.That means spending one hour and 36 minutes each day in each plant, she said.

“This is a problem we’ve been pointing out to them forever,” Nestor said.”There are vacancies and shortages all over the country. In a lot of places, the patrol assignments are doubled and tripled up.” (emphasis mine)

[The story linked to above is admittedly a little old. But I think it's safe to say that little to nothing has changed since then.] Am I saying that the U.S. beef supply is irrevocably tainted? No. Dr. Henning claims that cases of E. coli have been low and steady. A quick search of the CDC Web site didn't turn up any statistics along those lines, so I still have to confirm that. Even if it's the case, the massive beef recalls in 2007 and 2008 really did, in my mind, underscore that there are some serious shortcomings in the beef safety net.

Given the points above about significant "vacancies and shortages" among beef processing plant inspectors -- a far cry from Mr. Henning's "closely inspected" -- would it be safe to say there might be many more recalls if there were an adequate number of inspectors? What do you think?


Julie Rotelli said...

Speaking of food safety, what are your thoughts on West View Water Authority switching to chloramination disinfection?

DC switched to chlormine in 2000, and it caused a huge spike in the lead levels - Maybe this subsides over time, but I am not at all excited by this change.

Just wondering if you've done any research on the subject!

Apparently Camp Hill residents are all that excited about it either:

Julie Rotelli said...

make that "aren't all that excited"

so hard to type with squirming infant on my lap!

Fillippelli the (Wannabe) Cook said...

Those squirming infants are definitely not keyboard friendly.

Funny that you mention this, 'cause I got that notice in the mail yesterday and set it aside because I wanted to look further into it. Will have to do some digging around on it.

There is a ton of food safety related news happening - numerous pieces of legislation, Obama possibly making a potentially terrible appointment to a "food safety working group," etc., and I have not had the time to wrap my head around it.

Why oh Why can't I be independently wealthy so I have time to look into such things?!