Overall meat consumption continues to climb to record levels, a statistical development that runs contrary to public perceptions and media-identified trends. In fact, Americans ate more beef, poultry and pork in 1987 than ever before, according to a recently released report from the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Last year's total--more than 215 pounds per person--is particularly surprising considering the nation's eating patterns seemed to be moving away from such a major role for meat in the diet.
The USDA's Economic Research Service, which charts the livestock industry, attributed 1987's increase primarily to the growing popularity of poultry. Chicken and turkey consumption now stands at 80 pounds per person, more than double the level in 1960.
Red meats, however, still constitute the largest proportion of the meat category, accounting for 137.1 pounds of the per capita total. Despite the advantage, beef, pork, lamb and veal are continuing a consumption decline that began in the early 1970s when each American ate 156.6 pounds of red meat annually.
"Most people these days profess to have lowered meat consumption, yet data on . . . trends indicate otherwise," stated Nutrition Week, which carried an account of the USDA study.
The per capita consumption of the major meat categories is beef (75.5 pounds), chicken (60.1 pounds), pork (58.8 pounds) turkey (15.2 pounds) and others (about 6 pounds).
Furthermore, USDA is predicting that this year's meat consumption will be measurably higher than 1987 with the per capita total most likely exceeding 220 pounds. But the types of meat eaten are likely to change.
"If poultry consumption continues to rise at its current rate and beef continues to fall (then) poultry may soon be king (of the category)," the newsletter stated.
Food Safety Problem--Despite the somewhat encouraging consumption news, bacterial contamination continues to trouble the meat industry. Food-borne pathogens pose a threat which, if they continue to cause illnesses at the current levels, threaten consumer confidence in poultry and red meats.
Its recent newsletter, the Western States Meat Assn. said its study on processed meats found that hot dogs are the most likely items to contain Listeria monocytogenes , the microorganism that can cause Listeriosis, a potentially fatal illness.
Federal health officials, however, have said there have been no reported cases of Listeriosis directly linked to meat. To date, most illnesses have been attributed to dairy products such as in the Jalisco cheese contamination in Los Angeles.
The report on processed meat attributed the bacteria's presence to the high moisture level in plants producing hot dogs. Although these facilities are regularly cleansed, food products can be recontaminated when cooked meat comes in contact with the raw product during processing and handling, according to the report.
The recontamination often occurs because Listeria is difficult to destroy, despite repeated attempts at cleansing. The bacteria, for example, grows in cold temperatures such as in refrigeration, an atmospheric condition which normally kills other microbiological organisms. Listeria can, however, be destroyed by heat.
The newsletter urged manufacturers to physically separate the areas where raw and cooked meats are handled as a means of controlling Listeria and other pathogens.
"One of the toughest challenges to our industry is to assure that ( Listeria ) does not work its way back to cooked product by recontamination," the newsletter stated.
Exotic Seizures--Imported foods have been targeted by federal health officials as a major source of food-borne illnesses in this country. However, a recent case was considered bizarre even for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's well-seasoned agents.
"Inspection of the thousands of . . . shipping containers stacked on docks at (U.S.) ports of entry can yield dried black fungus, canned rattlesnake, chocolate-coated ants and other exotic food products," FDA Consumer magazine recently reported. "But none as curious, perhaps, as smoked rat."
The agency's Los Angeles office was confronted with the unusual item recently when a shipment of smoked cane rat from Ghana arrived at the city's port. Imported meats normally come under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but wild game falls under FDA's jurisdiction.
The exotic nature of smoked cane rat initially caught the agency's attention, but laboratory analysis proved that the meat contained insect fragments and other contaminants. The shipment was rejected by the FDA for entry into this country until it was brought into compliance with U.S. standards. The importers elected, instead, to return the smoked rat to Ghana.
"The importer (will not get) to test how well smoked rat might fare in the U.S. market," the article stated.
For the record: Smoked cane rats are prized in parts of Africa.
"Cane rats weigh about 3 pounds and, while seen as a destructive pest in their native sugar cane fields, their meat is considered a delicacy worth twice the price of beef, mutton or pork to some East Africans," FDA Consumer stated.