Friday, February 29, 2008

What's the beef?

The recent meat recalls in California because of E. coli concerns were not surprising to me. In my book, TIN LIZARD TALES: Reflections from a Train, I took meat packing companies and the federal government to task for not being more careful.

Near Fort Morgan, Colorado is a large meat packing company belonging to Cargill Meat Solutions. When we visited in the spring of 2004 it was known as Excel Corporation. It was from this plant, according to health officials, that feces-contaminated beef was shipped to Milwaukee triggering an E. coli outbreak that killed a three-year-old girl and sickened 60 other people. All the victims had eaten at a Sizzler restaurant prior to their attacks. None had actually eaten any of the contaminated beef but had consumed salad bar fruit that had been cut up on counters where the beef had also been prepared. Because the origin of the E. coli contamination could not be positively identified, a judge dismissed the resultant lawsuits.

In the book, I outline meat processing in great detail, something that has earned me some negative comment about the graphic details. One reviewer called my writing “internecine,” i.e. marked with excessive details about slaughter, violent death, and noxious events. I wasn’t trying to gross anyone out. I was attempting to instill some interest in my readers and the government that would prompt some remedial action.

What I read and hear from the reports about the California meat debacle indicate that neither the meat packing industry nor the United States Department of Agriculture, the agency that is responsible for oversight and regulation, are performing in commendable fashion. The meat packing industry blames the USDA for not having inspectors in place and the USDA blames the lack of funding for being unable to perform its duties. It’s the same old blame game.

It seems to me that if the meat packing companies would handle the processing in a responsible and concerned manner that produced clean and safe meat products, maybe inspectors wouldn’t be needed.

As for USDA inspectors, I can speak from experience about federal overseers. In my younger life I worked for an electronics company that made parts for the United States government. Some of our products were used by the military, and others were used by other governmental agencies. We were assigned inspectors from the Army, Navy, and Air Force along with a couple of governmental civilian representatives. They were to oversee our operations to make sure we were producing products which met specifications, which used the approved components, which were manufactured under strict quality control standards, and which were being tested appropriately to ensure reliability. In other words, the products were going to be used in such a way that spotless performance was a must. Should we expect anything less from our food products?

But let me tell you about our inspectors. They were hardly ever personally around our facility to check on the materials or the processes. When we needed them to sign off on a component prior to shipping, we always knew where to find them―at a little watering hole a couple of blocks from our company. They were almost always together; there was no interdepartmental rivalry over a pitcher of beer. They would either boozily wobble over to the plant to sign off the shipment, or they would hand their official stamp to one of our quality control people to OK the parts for them.

Electronic parts are one thing. But food products cannot be handled in a such a dismissive or—dare I say it?—criminal manner. I’m anxious to hear the final disposition of the California matter because it has affected so many people, many of young age in our schools. It has to serve as a wake-up call about governmental inefficiency and meat packing industry indifference.

Schuyler T. Wallace

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