New Questions about Beef Safety?

William Henning, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Meat Science
The Pennsylvania State University

Consumer concerns have once again been raised after 143 million pounds of ground beef was recalled this week from a California firm that manufactures and distributes ground beef to retailers and schools. The problems initially surfaced when a member of a special interest group (The Humane Society of the United States; HSUS) filmed a case of brutal animal handling of a cow that was unable to get up and posted it on YouTube. Normally, this would have been a case of animal cruelty that would have been dealt with by the USDA and the plant in question. Since the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service is responsible for animal welfare in packing plants, this should have been all handled within the regulatory system for animal handling. However, it was apparently revealed later that this non-ambulatory cow was, in fact, harvested and entered the food supply that raised the food safety questions. Since non-ambulatory animals are not considered fit for processing due to the possible relationship with BSE (mad cow disease), it should been prevented from entering the food supply.

The fact is that many safeguards are in place, including controls over what cattle can be fed, restrictions of cattle and beef products entering the United States from certain countries, prevention of the use of non-ambulatory cows, testing of suspicious animals, control of the materials that go into the food chain to prevent tissue that could harbor the disease from entering the food supply. BSE is very rare; over one million cows of the highest risk have been tested and found negative, which led both the regulators and the industry to believe that the production practices have been working. Current regulatory measures in place further ensure that no high-risk animals would enter the food chain and that, in the event of a failure such as this, there are strict controls over what products can be consumed. Animals are considered “at risk” if they are deemed be older than 30 months by USDA inspection of their dentition (teeth). If they are “30 months or older”, they are identified and segregated. They are then processed later in the day’s production, after all the “Under 30” month cattle have been processed to prevent any cross contamination of risk materials. The “30 month and over” carcasses are processed under close USDA supervision to ensure that all risk materials are removed and segregated.

Since these controls are in place, and given the very rare incidence of the disease, it is clear to food safety specialists and scientists that the beef supply is indeed safe from BSE and there should be no concerns on the part of consumers. However, the USDA has taken the position, that since the first safeguard was breeched, the company should conduct a Class 2 Recall. Recalls are based on risk. Class 2 recalls are voluntary and ones in which there is no proven or imminent risk, but are precautionary safeguards to assure consumers that extra steps are being taken to assure safety. The recall is huge, – yes, it seems excessive, but the USDA policy requires the longest possible time that product could be in the market to be used as the benchmark for the scope of the recall. Yes, most of this product will have been consumed, and only a small percentage of the total will be recovered. It does sent a message to all beef processors that there is no room for error when it comes to food safety and the USDA is serious about this.

In this case, much of the product has gone to school lunch programs and under the government purchase program has gone under even closer scrutiny as the product is inspected closely throughout production to ensure it meets both quality and safety specification established by the USDA.

The bottom line is that beef is extremely safe and there is NO BSE threat. This recall is more procedural, that is a plant employee broke the rules and now the plant is required to take precautionary safeguard, even though no threat of food safety exists. My children and grandchildren will still continue to enjoy the beef I prepare for them.

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