Dec 4, 2009

Unrealistic expectations

Unrealistic expectations

Food safety is a two-way street. Food processors and the public both have to take some responsibility for the safety of the food products they consume. Pathogen-free food is about as unrealistic as the government eliminating their total deficit spending.

Apparently, some in Washington, D.C., don’t think consumers should take any risk for the food they consume. Last week, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA, proposed an amendment, in committee, to the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Federal Meat Inspection Act, and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to prohibit the sale of any product that has not been certified pathogen-free.

In her speech on the merits of the bill, she said, "Food producers must be obligated to produce food that is free of pathogens. It is the responsibility of the food producer, not the consumer, to make sure our food is safe. Serious reform is needed. This bill would require companies that process any kind of food, from ground beef to frozen pot pies, to test their finished products and their ingredients to make sure that they are safe and pathogen-free."

Specifically, the amendment would prohibit the sale of any processed poultry, meat and Food and Drug Administration-regulated food that has not either undergone a pathogen reduction treatment, or been certified to contain no verifiable traces of pathogens.

It also requires that labels on ground beef, or any other ground meat product, specifically name every cut of meat that is contained in the product and does away with loopholes in current laws that allow for producers to add coloring, synthetic flavorings and spices to their products without informing consumers.

I suppose that it sounds simple enough for a senator to understand, but in reality, pathogen-free food is a difficult job. Yes, it would be great if the food industry could produce totally pathogen free products. However, any fresh food product has its time limit, then the biological clock takes over and it starts to degrade, and pathogens have a chance to spread. So, where do you draw the line of liability for food producers once the product is out of their control? It’s unrealistic to claim that the food producers should bear all the responsibility. Consumers have as big a part in preparing their fresh food and reducing any pathogens as the food processors.

Unfortunately, every now and then, some pathogen gets through the system and somebody gets sick. It happens. Food producers, especially meat producers, take pathogen reduction and food safety very seriously. However, there are simple rules to live by: Wash your fruits and vegetables and cook your meat thoroughly. Instead of punishing food producers, perhaps we should educate the public. Where are those public service messages that tell you to cook your chicken or hamburgers?

Zero tolerance on pathogens in food products is where the multiple government agencies that play a role in food inspection want to go. And while it sounds good, it’s just about impossible to achieve. Beef packers have multiple intervention steps to reduce surface pathogens and the vast majority come out clean as a whistle. Many of the fresh meat products are more vulnerable after they leave the packing plants’ trucks.

Ground beef is the major issue for beef processors. Currently, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service inspects the trim going into ground beef and also takes samples for pathogen testing every 10 minutes using the N60 testing protocol approved by USDA. Processing equipment is sanitized and washed every day to break production into clear units. Representative Rosa De Lauro, D-CT, isn’t satisfied with the testing protocol and wants USDA’s inspector general to reevaluate the system because we occasionally have recalls of ground beef that tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.

There are approximately 12 billion pounds of ground beef produced annually in the U.S., however, the annual recalls represent a fraction of the total production. For instance, for the year to date, there have been approximately 2.6 million pounds of ground beef recalled in 12 separate recalls that ranged in size from 75 pounds to 825,000 pounds. To put that in perspective, that is 0.002 percent of the total amount produced.

Of course, it’s a tragedy when someone dies from a food-borne illness and the meat industry will do whatever they can to improve. But the amount of regulation the government wants to place on the food industry in relation to the size of the pathogen problem is overkill, and the industry shouldn’t bear all the responsibility. Consumers have to take some of the risk, too. — PETE CROW