Where’s the beef been? Purveyors from corner butchers to supermarket chains insist the meat they sell is safe, including meat bred on farms thousands of miles away and that’s passed through many hands, before reaching consumers.
Most people would rather not think about what happens between when they see a cow munching on grass in a pristine pasture to when they chow down a cheeseburger.
Maybe they should.
Local supermarket chains insist the meat they sell is safe, with the state’s top food supply safety official adding that consumers should feel confident about what they eat.
But public safety advocates say that the current meat inspection system, while better than for some other products, fails to optimally serve consumers – pointing to a fragmented food safety bureaucracy and a dearth of inspectors. With meat increasingly packaged and ground before hitting stores, they say lack of refrigeration regulations and in-store inspections are also real concerns.
“Meat inspection (is) probably the stronger of all of the food safety inspections, with inspections at various stages of production,” said David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for Washington’s Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But there are holes.”
This month’s recall of 143 million pounds of beef from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. of California has brought the issue back into the limelight. The recall came about after The Humane Society of the United States released a video showing workers shocking staggering cows to stand up and walk. (By law, cattle cannot be slaughtered unless they can walk on their own power.)
“The fact that the abuses we recorded happened under the USDA’s noses, at one of the largest slaughter plants in the country, and we essentially chose this plant at random, it would seem remarkable if similar abuse was not happening at other slaughter plants,” said Dr. Michael Greger, the group’s director of public health and animal agriculture.
Meat retailers, including major supermarket chains, contacted by The Patriot Ledger insist the meat they sell is ready to go. They note extra measures taken to ensure what they sell is safe – doing their own inspections in stores and at packing plants, pulling back recalled items immediately and researching their suppliers.
But they concede the public’s concerns are legitimate, particularly regarding the federal inspection process.
“The recall that is currently in place was promoted as a horrendous decision on practice by one producer,” said John Kinnealey, owner of Milton’s Kinnealey Meats, “but it creates a real question in consumers’ minds: ‘Who’s watching the farm?’”
Know your suppliers
While it was one of the largest, the recent recall is not an anomaly. Greger estimates there were 20 beef recalls in the past year.
“It raises fundamental questions about the food safety system,” he said.
One of the biggest, critics say, is too few inspectors are available to inspect too much meat – an assertion seconded by the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, a union that represents thousands of inspectors.
According to Plunkett, 7,600 inspectors are responsible for overseeing 6,200 meat plants. Just over 8,000 inspectors would be needed to “make sure plant employees know they are looking over their shoulders,” he said.
Inspection at slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants is important if retailers sell products packaged elsewhere. This may apply to Stop & Shop’s ground beef, for instance, some of which comes in pre-processed.
The supermarket chain said it does, however, visit the plants that supply its meat.
Whether or not meat is pre-packaged or pre-ground is not as important as whether the cow it came from was healthy and its meat is refrigerated properly, said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the Washington-based consumer group Food and Water Watch. He also notes that independent inspectors are no more likely to watch local butchers ground beef as those at large packing plants.
Joe Previte, owner of Previte’s Meats & Provisions in Quincy, stressed the importance of getting guarantees from suppliers – for the sake of his business and, in turn, the safety of his customers.
“I’m asking them questions such as, ‘What do you do in slaughter? How is cattle processed? Are they washed properly?’” said Previte. “History is important. You have to know the company’s reputation, what the company stands for.”
Both Stop & Shop and Shaw’s supermarkets said they have automated systems in place, sending messages to all stores in the case of a recall. Moreover, they stress their safety efforts are part of their everyday routines, beyond recalls.
“Every department has safe-handling guidelines, training that people go through,” said Faith Weiner, spokeswoman for Stop & Shop supermarkets.
Shaw’s employees, likewise, conduct “continuous testing and inspection,” said spokeswoman Judy Chong. That includes ensuring equipment is sanitized immediately after each grind cycle.
Regardless of meat producers’ and sellers’ safeguards, the last line of defense
are those who will actually eat the meat.
“There is a visual and common-sense approach to food safety that consumers need to look at,” said Kinnealey. “Is a store clean? Is the help educated?”
Anthony Spadorcia, production manager at Previte’s Meats & Provisions, said consumers have a right to know about their meat.
“You can ask, ‘When the hamburger was ground?’ or ‘When was the steak cut?’ ” he said.
The bigger issue
Food recalls, food poisoning outbreaks and popular books like “Fast Food Nation,” which offers an inside look at how food, including meat, is created and processed, have combined to erode public faith in food safety.
Consumer confidence in food safety dropped from 82 percent in 2006 to 66 percent in 2007, according to a Food Marketing Institute survey.
The USDA is responsible for inspecting meat, poultry and eggs, with the Food and Drug Administration looking at other products.
Consumer safety advocates call this split inefficient, urging a single agency independent from the food industry for all products.
While pushing for broader reforms and more inspectors, food safety advocates – like meat retailers and distributors – are not calling this an emergency yet. They just don’t believe people should be blind to possible problems.
“For the most part, the USDA inspection system is catching most of the food safety problems with meat and poultry,” said “But there is lingering doubt in our minds as to how well they are catching all of it.”
Don Conkey may be reached at email@example.com.
Safe meat tips from the FDA
Mary Yebba of the New England District Office of the Federal Food and Drug Administration offered these tips to ensure the meat you buy and eat is safe: