January 10, 2010
More Perils of Ground Meat
About eight years ago, a company called Beef Products Inc. had the novel idea of injecting its ground beef with ammonia to kill deadly E. coli and salmonella. The Agriculture Department pronounced the idea effective and exempted Beef Products Inc. from routine tests. The company's beef began appearing regularly in grocery stores, fast food restaurants and school lunch programs. It turned out the beef was not safe.
The slaughterhouse trimmings the company used to grind its beef known as processed beef have a much higher microbial presence than other cuts, including E. coli and salmonella, and the ability of the ammonia to kill the germs appears to have been greatly oversold.
Investigators working for a division of the Agriculture Department that oversees school lunch programs found higher rates of salmonella in meat from Beef Products than from other vendors. Two 27,000-pound batches of beef were recalled for E. coli contamination.
The Agriculture Department has now belatedly withdrawn its exemption. Top officials admitted that they had been unaware of the problem until The New York Times alerted them to the school lunch test results.
This whole scary mess suggests several problems that need fixing, starting with better coordination. School lunch officials and managers at the Agriculture Department's meat safety division are obviously not sharing information effectively. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has since directed them to do so. And mindsets must change. School lunch programs were initially attracted to processed beef (despite its alkaline taste and offensive smell) because it was so much cheaper. Safety and quality must be higher priorities than price.
With its exemption has been withdrawn, Beef Products Inc. deserves the closest possible scrutiny: its beef is widely used, not just in schools. And the Agriculture Department's meat safety division clearly must be more vigilant. Consumers should not have to wait until somebody in the school lunch program blows the whistle.