Tester takes aim at meat inspection, food-borne illness

The Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Citing food safety concerns, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is proposing sweeping changes in the way the meat industry prevents illness outbreaks from potentially deadly E. coli bacteria.

“I don’t know what kind of blowback we’re going to get, but we do need to hold the people accountable who need to be held accountable,” Tester said Tuesday.

At issue is the way the U.S. government tracks E. coli- and salmonella-contaminated meat in cases of food-borne illness.

Investigations currently stop at butcher shops and packing plants, but Tester said the real contamination takes place in slaughterhouses, where animals are cut open and fecal bacteria from intestines and hides can come in contact with meat. For decades, rules for required testing have made it impossible to trace contamination back to slaughterhouses.

Tester said he will introduce a bill today to amend the Meat Inspection Act, changing those rules and get to the source of a food illnesses like E. coli. Roughly 73,000 Americans are sickened annually by E. coli, 2,000 are hospitalized and 60 are killed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical costs associated with E. coli exceed $405 million a year.

“If nothing changes, we are virtually guaranteed there will be ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls as a consequence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s unwillingness to trace contamination back to the source,” said John Munsell, a former Miles City butcher and advocate for reforming food safety laws.

Eight years ago, a USDA inspector found E. coli in beef at Munsell’s family meat processing plant, Montana Quality Foods. Munsell told the USDA the contaminated beef came from the slaughterer ConAgra Beef Co., but under existing food safety laws, the government’s investigation stopped at Munsell’s plant. Federal regulators said they couldn’t positively trace the bacteria back to ConAgra despite records offered by Munsell.

Munsell recalled 270 pounds of hamburger. Months later, ConAgra Beef was caught in an 18 million pound meat recall, one of the nation’s largest.

Munsell has been lobbying for regulatory changes since 2002. He helped write the bill Tester is introducing. Currently, inspectors are not allowed to document the source of the meat they sample on the same day they collect material to test, Munsell said. Once the test results come back, enough time has lapsed that inspectors can’t say for sure where the meat originated.

“Why have they always required policies that intentionally delayed evidence gathering? Who are they trying to protect?” Munsell said. “In five days, the trail of evidence grows cold.”

Trace back regulations are overdue, said Bill Bullard, of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America.

But Bullard said the handful of meat companies responsible for slaughtering more than 80 percent of the country’s meat will lobby against what Tester is trying to do.

“Our current laws and regulations insulate the slaughtering facilities where the contamination actually occurs and holds them harmless from any disease investigation,” Bullard said. “As a result, we’ve seen an increase in food-borne illness without the benefit of knowing where the bacteria actually contaminated the meat.”

Better inspection can only restore American confidence in beef safety, Bullard said, which is what ranchers need.