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Who's to Blame in Fast-Food Burger Deaths?


At a federal hearing last week, government officials, cattle ranchers, meat processors, union executives and food scientists took turns blaming each other for the conditions that allowed contaminated hamburger to cause 500 illnesses and four deaths earlier this year on the Pacific Coast.

The day-long session in Oakland was one of six held around the country by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its purpose was to gather public comment on plans to modernize the meat and poultry inspection system so as to prevent similar episodes. The series concludes Friday in Philadelphia.

Noticeably absent from the finger-pointing session were representatives of the restaurant and supermarket industries, which came under the heaviest fire for overall poor food sanitation practices. Government agencies were also sharply criticized for failing to address evolving threats to the food supply and for focusing inspection efforts on too few links in the food chain.

Ground beef patties contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7--which were undercooked by Jack In The Box, a fast-food chain, thus allowing the bacteria to survive and multiply--were the source of the food poisoning outbreak in January.

Almost everyone at the hearing agreed that it is impossible to eliminate the presence of harmful bacteria in raw animal products. One dissenter was Patricia Carney, executive director of EarthSave Foundation, a consumer advocacy group.

"Animal products are mass-produced in an unhealthy way. . . . 50% of the antibiotics used today are administered to animals. . . . Chickens are grown faster than ever, or in two to four weeks time. That's abnormal," she said. "Stopping E. coli , Salmonella, and other harmful bacteria may mean our food will cost more (because production methods need to be slowed). But paying more for food is better than the cost of illnesses being passed on to us through food that is mass-produced and not environmentally sound."

More typical of the hearing comments were those of Dave Langston, plant manager for Del Monte Meat Co. Focusing on retailers, he said, "The only requirements for people who want to prepare and sell food to the public is that they be of minimum age and have an (easy-to-acquire) health card. These workers need much more than that; they need government certification that they have learned safe food-handling practices."

Langston's primary targets were the giant food warehouse stores (sometimes known as club stores), which want to be exempt from federal meat inspection, yet sell their low-priced merchandise not only to consumers, but also to restaurants.

"Warehouse stores and other retailers are selling large numbers of cooked, ready-to-eat meals or entrees that were prepared in their own kitchens with little or no government inspection," Langston said. "The employees preparing these foods get little instruction or regulation. These operations are profit-driven, and they can, and do, disguise marginal meat ingredients with spices rather than discarding unsafe product.

"We feel improvements in meat inspection alone will not increase the safety of the food supply until all food service establishments comply with the same tough regulations," Langston said.

Yet another view came from a trade group executive representing meat and poultry processors.

"The government's credibility is at stake," said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute. "The (USDA's) meat inspection program's institutional lack of focus on modern food safety concerns, such as microbiological hazards, threatens to undermine the credibility of an important government program."

Boyle estimates that his constituents spend about $1 billion annually on plant sanitation programs but that the investment can be negated if the products are mishandled by others--such as restaurants, supermarkets and consumers--further down the food chain.

We need a food safety system that encompasses everything from "the farm to the factory to the fork," he said.

Dawn Squires, vice president of a local union representing government meat inspectors, charged, however, that the federal government has been too responsive to meat industry complaints about inspection.

"The teeth have been pulled from all the regulatory programs whenever they caused any pain to the meat industry. . . . The dollar speaks loud and clear," she said.

It has become obvious over the years, Squires added, that the accelerated production in meat and chicken plants is leading to increased contamination of the product.

"We resent suggestions that the meat industry is not on the cutting edge of science," responded Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the Western States Meat Assn. in Oakland. "Our industry has made massive safety investments in the (slaughter and processing) system. . . . We have a remarkable record of quality and safety."

The hearing's most emotional moment came when Celina Rodriquez, a reporter for KSTS-TV in San Francisco, recalled the death of her best friends' daughter and her namesake--a 3-year-old in Seattle--during the recent E. coli outbreak.

"She (Celina) was treated at the emergency room one night and she died the next morning," Rodriquez said. "We need to educate people--meat packers, the government, people at home, restaurants, every person involved with food--to work together to create a safer system and not to point fingers at each other."

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