A very disturbing development has emerged in the wake of the Brazilian meat inspection scandal, and it’s like turning the clock back 30 years.
Let me explain. After police raided Brazilian meatpackers and shut down dozens of plants for allegedly bribing inspectors to certify tainted meat, China, Mexico, Chile, Japan and the European Union imposed bans on the import of meat from that country.
Conspicuously absent from that list was the United States.
Instead, USDA officials announced that the department was taking “additional steps to ensure the safety of beef products from Brazil.”
According to an official news release, none of the facilities implicated in the Brazilian scandal had shipped meat products to the United States. Nevertheless, USDA announced that the department would still conduct “additional pathogen testing of all shipments of raw beef and ready-to-eat products” imported from Brazil.
“Keeping food safe for American families is our top priority,” Mike Young, USDA acting Deputy Secretary, said in a statement.
Let’s hope so. However, tough talk doesn’t get the job done.
USDA said that Food Safety and Inspection Service personnel had stepped up their examination of Brazilian meat products at ports-of-entry and would maintain indefinitely a policy of “100% re-inspection and pathogen testing,” not to mention taking “immediate action to refuse entry of product” if inspectors uncover “findings of food-safety concern.”
Déjà vu — All Over Again
That’s a crock of you-know-what, and the media’s unquestioning acceptance of USDA’s “strong stance” is even worse.
At the center of this controversy is the issue of microbial contamination, a problem that has plagued the U.S. meat industry for decades.
Anyone remember E. coli O157:H7?
It took a horrendous slog through the courts, endless confrontations with consumer activists (highlighted by CSPI’s Caroline Smith DeWaal back in the ’90s hectoring USDA “to simply make it illegal” to sell tainted meat) and intra-industry battles over HACCP implementation to finally reach the point — we thought — where a simple yet profound proposition had finally sunk in: You can’t test your way out of the threat of contaminated meat.
Here we are many years later, and USDA is right back to playing the “we’re going to test every lot” card, as if that should reassure the nation that there’s no need to worry. That is wrong on so many levels.
First of all, testing for microbial pathogens — salmonella, in this case — is merely an after-the-fact method of verifying that post-harvest, in-process interventions have done what they’re supposed to do. Testing does not increase the safety of food products, any more than test-driving a handful of cars as they exit the assembly line would be a way to improve automobile safety.
Second, to extend the car analogy, how would you assure consumers that the brakes on a particular model of new cars are fully functional? If an automaker announced that, “We are stepping up the testing of each day’s production at our plants,” would that reassure anybody? Wouldn’t such an announcement prompt an immediate question along the lines of “Wait a second — aren’t the brakes already engineered to work properly? You mean you’re testing random cars because there might be a problem?”
The aftermath of that approach would be a stampede of customers exiting the company’s showrooms that would make the Volkswagen scandal look like an end-of-year sale-a-bration.
Yet when the exact same approach is applied to food products, suddenly media accepts it on face value, and consumers (apparently) are supposed to be reassured that all is well.
The bottom line is that microbial pathogens are widely and unevenly distributed in the huge combos and container-loads of meat products used to export meat, and testing a sample here and there is basically useless. Heck, a company could aggressively test every load of meat that comes out of every single grinder or tumbler in every plant it operates, and there is no way that the safety of that lot could be definitively assured.
In fact, a company could test every other individual package of meat, which of course would be a financial death sentence, and it still wouldn’t be able to assure its customers that they have nothing to worry about.
There’s only one way to maintain food safety, and that is through vigorous, comprehensive, scientifically verified anti-microbial procedures and interventions. And even then there’s no guarantee that every single package of product is absolutely pathogen-free.
Bacteria don’t play that game.
Yet here we are, deep into the 21st century, and USDA wants the public to believe that contaminated Brazilian beef will never reach their tables because the agency is “increasing its examination” of imported meat.
It’s tempting to suggest that, at best, USDA is searching for a needle in a haystack, but that would be wrong.
The odds of finding the needle are much better.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.