Beef with E. coli slips through “cook only” loophole
November 13, 2007
One federal inspector calls it the “E. coli loophole.” Another says, “Nobody would buy it if they knew.”
The officials are referring to the little-discussed fact that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has deemed it acceptable for meat companies to cook and sell meat on which E. coli, a bacteria that can sicken and even kill humans, is found during processing.
The “E. coli loophole” affects millions of pounds of beef each year that test positive for the presence of E. coli O157:H7, a virulent strain of the bacteria.
The agency allows companies to put this E. coli-positive meat in a special category: “cook only.” Cooking the meat, the USDA and producers say, destroys the bacteria and makes it safe to eat as precooked hamburgers, meat loaf, crumbled taco meat and other products.
Some USDA inspectors say the “cook-only” practice means higher-than-appropriate levels of E. coli are tolerated in packing plants, raising the chance that clean meat will become contaminated. They say the “cook-only” practice is part of the reason for this year’s sudden rise in incidents of E. coli contamination.
“All the product that is E. coli positive, they put a ‘cooking-only’ tag on it,” said one inspector, who like other federal inspectors interviewed, asked to remain anonymous for fear they would lose their jobs. “They [companies] will test, and everything that’s positive, they slap that label on.”
There is no evidence “cook-only” meat has directly sickened consumers. But some inspectors said the practice conceals significantly higher levels of E. coli in packing plants than the companies admit. That’s because companies that find E. coli are allowed to shift that meat immediately into “cook-only” lines, without reporting it to the USDA.
The USDA regularly conducts tests for E. coli in slaughtering plants but only on meat that packing companies have deemed free of E. coli, the agency inspectors said. USDA officials said they do not track how much meat is put into “cook-only” categories, but interviews with a half-dozen inspectors suggested it is a significant amount.
“The government keeps putting out that we’ve reduced E. coli by 50 percent,” an inspector said. “And we haven’t done nothing. We’ve just covered it up.”
USDA officials denied this. In answers to written questions, department officials said USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “collects its own random samples without waiting for test results from the plant.”
Meat-industry representatives and the USDA also said there is no risk from beef that is fully cooked, since cooking meat above 160 degrees Fahrenheit kills pathogens such as E. coli. Meat-company representatives also said they have taken significant steps to eliminate E. coli during slaughtering, including lactic-acid washes of carcasses and steam treatments in which carcasses are heated to kill the bacteria.
Meat found with E. coli, they said, isn’t worth as much. “If raw ground beef has to go into a ‘cook-only’ category, it loses value,” said Randall Huffman, senior vice president for scientific affairs at the American Meat Institute, an industry group.
Most major meatpacking companies offer their own cooked-meat products, such as meat loaf, precooked hamburgers and taco-meat crumbles. They also sell “cook-only” meat to food-processing companies.
Some cooked-beef products end up in programs such as the National School Lunch Program, which the USDA administers. The agency bought 2.8 million pounds of cooked beef in 2006, according to USDA records. Officials were not sure whether the total included beef that had been found positive for E. coli.
Whatever the reason for this year’s increase in E. coli contamination, the result has been sick consumers. The largest recall involved Topps Meat of Elizabeth, N.J., which went out of business after it recalled 21.7 million pounds of ground beef because of E. coli contamination. About 40 people fell ill.
More recently, Cargill, of Minneapolis, recalled nearly 2 million pounds of ground beef because of E. coli concerns, and more than 3 million pounds of General Mills’ Totino’s and Jeno’s pizzas were recalled because of E. coli in pepperoni.
The inspectors interviewed for this story blame methods used to slaughter cattle and the practice of designating affected meat “cook only.”
While the practice is spelled out in USDA regulations, it is not widely publicized. “If you knew this was all E. coli positive, would you buy that product?” asked one inspector.
Meat companies rejected the charges that corners are being cut. Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, one of the nation’s largest beef producers, said his company has developed a special testing program, Tyson Total N60, to detect E. coli. The program is so effective, Mickelson said, that other companies use it.
Cargill declined to comment; meatpacking firm Swift Foods did not return phone calls.
Inspectors interviewed for this story challenged the suggestion that E. coli is a small problem. One said a large meatpacking plant where he worked produced 50,000 pounds a week of E. coli-positive beef that was tagged “cook only.”
“It’s a smoke screen,” the inspector said. “They [the meat companies] are still producing a half-million pounds a week of E. coli product, and we’re patting them on their back.”
By Stephen J. Hedges/Chicago Tribune/November 11, 2007