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Government?s Ground Beef Testing Program Leaves Consumers Vulnerable to Dangerous Bacteria

May 23, 2002

Government?s Ground Beef Testing Program Leaves Consumers Vulnerable to Dangerous Bacteria

USDA Records Show Systemic Breakdown in Salmonella Testing Regimen

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? The federal government?s main microbial testing program for meat is riddled with systemic breakdowns that allow large quantities of potentially contaminated ground beef to land on supermarket shelves, according to a five-month investigation by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and Public Citizen.

Many of the largest ground beef plants in the United States repeatedly flunked salmonella tests but were permitted to continue sending ground beef stamped as government-approved to market, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) records documenting the government?s salmonella testing at ground beef plants throughout the country. The records showed that the program, which began in 1998, is implemented in a highly sporadic and inconsistent manner, and that USDA pronouncements about the program?s success are not supported by data in the records.

The findings were contained in a report, Hamburger Hell: The Flip Side of USDA?s Salmonella Testing Program. The report was released before the Memorial Day weekend, just as the country kicks off the summer grilling season. The findings are particularly important because salmonella is the only microbe for which the government routinely tests and is touted by the government as an indicator of the safety of the country?s ground beef. The testing program is part of a larger government effort to make the meat industry ? instead of the government ? responsible for overseeing meat packing operations and ensuring that meat stays uncontaminated.

“The USDA typically has sought to protect the program first, the industry second and consumers last,” said Felicia Nestor, director of GAP?s Food Safety Project. “Their official policy is to avoid testing plants, not report on the bad plants and candy-coat the results by overcounting results from the very best plants that produce less than one percent of the product.”

The report lists 77 plants in 26 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico that failed at least one salmonella test “set,” which consists of a series of tests. Large plants that have failed are located in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. When considering plants of all sizes, the states with the most failing plants were Texas, with 18 failing plants, and California, with 10 failing plants.

“The ineffectiveness of this program makes it a waste of taxpayer dollars and an abuse of the public trust,” said Patty Lovera, deputy director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The government simply is not living up to its promises about the safety of ground beef on supermarket shelves.”

In 1996, the government instituted major changes in the federal meat inspection system with the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program. Under this system, meat plants are responsible for determining where in their production system hazards are most likely to occur and controlling them. The role of government inspectors shifted to the role of auditor, and under HACCP, inspectors have less authority to require corrective action when they see a problem. As part of the new regulatory system, the government launched its salmonella testing program.

Public Citizen and GAP obtained testing data from Jan. 26, 1998, when the program began, through Oct. 1, 2001. The government is supposed to conduct sample sets, which consist of tests conducted on meat during 53 consecutive days in which ground beef is produced. If a plant fails the set, with more than five samples testing positive for salmonella, the USDA is supposed to initiate re-testing in 60 days.

But the government isn?t following its own protocol, the records showed. Among large plants, which produce ground beef almost daily, sample sets were completed within 84 days (a time frame chosen to allow for weekends) in less than 40 percent of completed sets. It took the government nearly a year to complete sets at some large plants that eventually failed to meet the standard. Even if a ground beef plant failed six tests ? enough to fail a set ? before the 53 days was up, the USDA did not take corrective action until all 53 samples were taken. And long periods of time went by ? in some cases more than a year ? between sets.

The salmonella testing program was originally proposed as a “three strikes” program. But under a 2001 USDA directive, if a plant fails a set twice and the USDA believes the plant will fail a third time, the agency waits until it appears as though the plant can pass before starting another set.

During the period analyzed, the USDA allowed failing plants to send products to market for a cumulative total of nearly 1,000 weeks after the sixth positive salmonella test (which means that the plant failed the set) without informing plant operators of the problems or requiring them to take corrective action. During the 121 weeks of delays that occurred at large plants alone, the USDA knowingly allowed an estimated 218 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef ? enough for about a billion hamburgers ? to enter the market bearing the USDA seal of approval before it informed plant managers of the need for corrective action.

U.S. Reps. John Baldacci (D-Maine) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) were scheduled to speak at the press conference to unveil the report and urge improvements in the testing program.

In light of the findings, Public Citizen and GAP recommend that microbial tests be taken daily, large plants be subject to more testing than small plants, the government test routinely for other pathogens and the government take action as soon as a plant fails enough tests to fail a set.

“This is a very important report,” said Donna Rosenbaum, food safety consultant with Food Safety Partners, and co-founder and former executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP). “It shows that our confidence in the microbial testing system of HACCP has been misplaced and premature. Dirty meat from the plants in this report is reaching consumers, killing them and making them sick. It’s a shame that nine years after Jack in the Box, USDA still can’t get it right.”