Last week's news of another E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef--the same bacteria that caused hundreds of illnesses and four deaths on the Pacific Coast in 1993--came just as a Congressional watchdog agency accused the U.S. Department of Agriculture of foot-dragging in addressing the safety of the nation's meat and poultry supply. Chief among the complaints: USDA's inability to stem contamination rates in raw product.
The Government Accounting Office claims that USDA has made only "limited" improvements in its meat and poultry inspection program during the past 18 months, the tenure of the Clinton Administration.
"Recent efforts have neither dealt with the (USDA) inspection system's inherent weaknesses nor fundamentally changed the system's predominant reliance on sensory (sight, smell and feel) inspection. . . . These methods cannot identify microbial contamination, such as harmful bacteria, which is the most serious health risk from meat and poultry," said John W. Harman, GAO's director of food and agriculture issues in Washington.
The most recent outbreak last month, in which three children in San Luis Obispo County were hospitalized after eating ground meat, prompted USDA to reissue precautions about handling and cooking ground meat. Similar instructions have been required on all packages of ground meat since May 27 and were the result of USDA's reaction to the E. coli incidents on the Pacific Coast in January, 1993.
USDA's own data indicate that the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States, in terms of medical expenses and lost productivity, ranges from $5.2 billion to $6.1 billion. More than half of the total is attributable to meat and poultry products.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also estimates that there are 80 million or more cases of food poisoning in this country each year. Exactly which commodities are responsible for most of these illnesses is unknown. More reliable data are difficult to accumulate because local health officials are often hard-pressed to investigate all cases of food poisoning. As a result, the source of an outbreak often goes undetected. The San Luis Obispo case, however, is an exception.
The GAO's Harman reiterated a litany of failings that have yet to be corrected by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection System (FSIS). His most significant charges, made in testimony recently before a Senate Agriculture subcommittee in Washington, include the following points:
* FSIS methods waste resources because they rely on visual inspection methods. Widespread laboratory testing for harmful bacteria in raw meat should be implemented instead.
* Animal diseases for which the meat inspection system was originally designed (87 years ago) have been eradicated.
* The FSIS signature hands-on inspection techniques virtually ensure that contamination is spread from one carcass to another.
* Although FSIS has known for 15 years that microbial contamination was a serious problem, it has not routinely performed microbial tests of equipment surfaces or raw products. Nor does it require industry to perform such tests.
* Without microbial tests, FSIS does not know where in the production and processing cycle microbial contamination is most likely to occur, or what types of bacteria are prevalent and at what levels.
Mary Dixon, USDA deputy press secretary, disagreed with the GAO characterizations and said the Clinton Administration inherited a meat inspection system that was in need of a drastic overhaul. She said progress has been made in all areas said to be deficient by GAO.
Some of the Clinton Administration's innovations in the past 18 months include unannounced USDA inspections at slaughter and processing plants with historically poor sanitation practices, enforcing zero tolerance for fecal contamination on red meat, development of a zero tolerance policy for poultry, cooking and handling instructions on 15 billion packages of ground meat and poultry a year, and development of rapid tests for microbiological hazards that will be instituted at a later date.
"We are bringing the system into the 20th and 21st centuries," Dixon said. "We are developing meat technologies that should have been developed years ago."
GAO did credit USDA for its public information efforts, such as the cooking and handling labels, but said that education alone will not eliminate food poisoning outbreaks.
"Since the E. coli outbreak of January, 1993," Harman said, "the nation has experienced an increase in the number of incidents of food-borne illnesses caused by meat contaminated with the same E. coli bacteria."