Out to Pasture: Beef Can''t Be Too Safe, Just Too Expensive

October 22, 2009 07:00 PM

Steve Cornett
If you're looking for the next big issue that could land on the desk of the already burdened Obama administration, look no further than concerns about the nation's food safety. It's the kind of problem that inspires sleepless nights, just like nightmare scenarios involving a possible outbreak of H1N1 flu or the next big natural disaster.

That's how Washington Post reporter Ed O'Keefe des-cribed the impact of a recent New York Times story about the young victim of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that occurred in the fall of 2007.

Here's how I see it: The Obama administration will likely react to the latest beef safety uproar by giving the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) orders to clamp down on ground beef procedures.

On the one hand, that's great. Beef can't be too safe, and there's no reason it can't be traced back to the slaughterhouse it came from.

On the other hand, beef can be too expensive. If the FSIS gets too draconian, it will add more cost than value—and given the attitude of some in the current administration, that would not be surprising.

How much will the industry's warnings about cost-effectiveness matter to them? If you agree with Michael Pollan's theory that Americans eat too much beef and cows add too much methane to the environment, how misty-eyed will you get when cowboys fret about burdensome costs and the impact on beef consumption?

We may soon find out because, as the Post's O'Keefe notes, food safety is on the stove. It may not be on Obama's front burner now, but it certainly is for USDA. And unlike the economy, health care or Afghanistan, food safety regulations are a problem the government thinks it can unilaterally "fix.”

The New York Times piece that stirred the pot in early October concerned a 22-year-old dance instructor who was paralyzed for life after contracting E. coli as part of an outbreak traced to Cargill Meat Solutions. The article's villain was a lack of inspection for bacteria in the meat at various stages. If the writer was suggesting that inspections are the cure, he ignored the fact that the independent labs failed to identify E. coli bacteria in spiked samples submitted for analysis.

This reinforces the obvious: No amount of government involvement will ever "inspect” or "test” our way to food safety. Here is how the government can help save consumers without hurting the beef industry:

1. Approve irradiation of ground beef. Allow companies to label it and promote it. Use the checkoff program and USDA's consumer education funding to promote irradiated beef as something you can buy to protect your family.

2. Put teeth into HACCP rules. According to the Times article, some of the processor's own rules were broken. The way you tackle this problem is to use Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points spot inspections to make sure processors are following their rules and making beef safe. Hammer them when they're caught falling short. Warning letters aren't enough.

3. Approve preharvest technologies that are sitting on the shelf at FDA. There are vaccines and other treatments that, if approved, could cut the incidence of E. coli in cattle manure by 85%. They await, as they have for years, approval from a government that is more interested in what newspaper reporters think of the "process” than it is in solving problems.

Steve Cornett, Editor Emeritus, writes from Canyon, Texas scornett@farmjournal.com

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