Meat Safety Under the Microscope

The initial bull market for beef created huge trade for low-priced, good quality meat. But it also opened the door to food safety and health issues.

By Chuck Jolley

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Big beef has had big problems lately, most of them related to high volume production. E. coli and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — “mad cow” disease — are the biggest of these problems.

The deadly strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7 first surfaced over a decade ago with the infamous Jack in the Box crisis in the Northwest. Several children died and two giant industries — restaurant chains and beef processors — had to struggle to get a handle on the problem. The beef industry realized it had to take greater care in handling carcasses during the slaughter process; restaurants had to absolutely insure they cooked ground beef to a minimum internal temperature of 160˚F. Serving a rare burger became professional Russian roulette.

BSE surfaced in the U.K. about the same time as the E. coli problem. At first, it was thought to be a relatively rare animal health problem but it quickly developed into a major crisis for the English beef industry when consumption of affected meat was tied directly to a startling rise in New Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain disorder that causes rapid, progressive dementia with associated neuromuscular disturbances. The disease was extremely rare and traditionally affected men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 years. The "new variant" form affected younger persons (the median age of onset was 28 years).


Although there is general agreement on the cause of BSE, finding suspect animals in a high-volume meat production environment that handles millions of animals a year has been problematic.

Although there is general agreement on the cause of BSE, finding suspect animals in a high-volume meat production environment that handles millions of animals a year has been problematic. The Japanese reaction was to mandate the testing of every animal in their herds. The U.S. model, based on much higher throughput, looked at the science and decided random testing and visual inspection was a more cost-efficient way to solve the problem.

E. coli and BSE may have turned out not be major issues to the average American consumer. Sales and surveys indicate they trust what the Department of Agriculture has been doing to protect their meat supply or, in their collective opinion, they just don’t care about either problem. U.S consumption, even faced with the historically high prices of the last half decade, has increased every year.

Still, E. coli and BSE, while not the devastating one-two punch the industry expected, spurred health-aware consumers to seek alternate sources for their meat fix. Overall beef consumption kept pace through a difficult decade, in part thanks to the burgeoning of the “natural” and organic meat mini-industry. Producers in this niche gained a slightly bigger foothold as they maneuvered to fill the demands of consumers.

“Our phones started ringing shortly after they found the first mad cow,” says Don Davis, the man who wears the biggest hat at Bandera Beef, a small producer of grass-fed beef in central Texas. Davis’ business is based on the premise that grass-fed animals, never sent to feed yards and harvested in a USDA-inspected plant at a slower line speed; produce inherently better quality, safer cuts of meat. This belief is supported by studies of how E.coli is spread. Recent research indicates there is a higher incidence of the problem among animals finished in feed yards.

He thinks the problems of E. coli and mad cow are far from over. Asked about the effect of these issues on his business, he observes, “I know we picked up some business we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

Davis believes calls came because people wanted to trust their beef supply. Because of this, he calls for stronger standards in what he believes is misleadingly labeled “all-natural” beef. “The public’s perception of what it is and what they actually get is not the same thing. As long as there are loopholes in the feed program, cattle are eating things that might surprise you, and that won’t stop mad cow disease,” he explains, “and ‘natural’ ought to really mean minimally processed with no growth hormones or antibiotics added.”

Unlike Argentina and Australia, where it’s a common practice, the grass-fed beef phenomenon in the U.S. is fueled by small family farms. Most operations are only large enough to serve nearby communities (for a list, go to Meyer Natural Beef, Laura’s Lean Beef, Coleman Natural Meats and Maverick Ranch Natural Meats are among the few that have regional or limited national distribution.

Ahead of the Herd


Facing the E. coli issue head-on, Excel Corp., a beef packer headquartered in Wichita, Kan., chose to make a clean wash of the situation. Led by Dell Allen, recently retired vice president of technical services and food safety, Excel bit a major financial bullet and installed “Hide-On Carcass Wash & Sanitizing Assembly,” a costly piece of equipment that could be described as a nice hot shower for cattle.

It’s a new process that thoroughly cleans beef hides during the slaughtering process, before the hides are peeled from the animal in a process that normally can leave trace amounts of infectious fecal material on the carcass. The system features two high-pressure antimicrobial sprays enclosed in a cabinet. The animal hide is thoroughly cleaned by the spray, and the cabinet confines the splash to prevent cross-contamination.

Irradiation reduces or eliminates pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms in food. Specific doses of radiation can kill the rapidly growing cells of insects, pathogens and microorganisms. These include E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Trichinella spiralis.

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