USDA can’t close dirty meatpackers, court rules

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2001:

NEW ORLEANS, La.– A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on December 6, 2001 affirmed a series of late 1999 and early 2000 rulings by U.S. District Judge Joe Fish of Dallas which held that the USDA has no authority to close meatpacking plants in response to detecting salmonella bacteria on carcasses.

The appellate court agreed with Fish that salmonella cannot be considered an adulterating substance in meat because it is killed if meat is fully cooked at the normal recommended temperatures. Therefore, Fish and the appellate court agreed, the USDA cannot limit salmonella contamination.

The USDA has for the past five years used the presence of salmonella as a warning that other harmful bacteria may be present in meat, under the 1996 Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points inspection protocol, which replaced old-style “poke and sniff” inspection with a scientific standard.

Effectively overturning the use of salmonella as an indicator, the case began in November 1999 when the USDA tried to close the Supreme Beef Processors Inc. meatgrinding plant in Dallas after it flunked three sets of tests for salmonella. Now in bankruptcy, Supreme Beef Processors was a major supplier of hamburger to school lunch programs.

“The case took on a much wider significance with the appeals court decision because the judges also agreed to allow the National Meat Association to intervene,” explained Washington Post staff writer Marc Kaufman. The National Meat Association has fought the salmonella standard ever since it was introduced, and used the Dallas case to challenge the whole USDA inspection system.

“What happened to Supreme Beef could happen to any grinder,” National Meat Association spokesperson Jeremy Russell told Kaufman. “The salmonella was coming in from the slaughterhouses, and there is nothing a grinder could do to remove it.” That could also be phrased: there is no such thing as “clean” processed meat.

Cancer risk

Elio Riboli, chief of the nutrition division of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, in June 2001 hinted at
a similar finding in presenting the preliminary results of an ongoing study of the influence of diet on cancer to the European Conference on Nutrition and Cancer in Lyon, France. Following the diets and cancer histories of 406,323 Euro-peans since 1993, the Riboli study indicates that eating preserved meat products may increase the risk
of bowel cancer by 50%.

Further studies will be necessary, however, to attribute specific risk to particular products such as hamburger, hot dogs,
salami, bacon, and cured ham. The International Agency for Research on Cancer is a division of the World Health Organization.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that Americans suffer 76 million food-borne illnesses per year, resulting in 323,914 hospitalizations and 5,194 deaths. Most of the hospitalizations and deaths occur among the oldest and youngest victims, pregnant women, and people whose immune systems are already weakened by disease or treatments such as chemotherapy.

By comparison, the terrorist attacks of September 11 killed 3,187 people at all sites combined.

The most common food-borne illnesses are caused by the campylobacter and salmonella bacteria. They are transmitted mainly via poultry products–and, because of the heavy prophylactic use of antibiotics on factory-style chicken farms, antibiotic-resistant strains of campylobacter and salmonella are afflicting humans with increasing frequency. Salmonella already kills about 550 Americans per year. As the antibiotic-resistant strains spread, the toll is
expected to rise.

Study suppressed

Only some of the increase of the past decade in meat contamination cases is attributable to so-called “superbugs,” factory farming, and meat production lines running faster than inspectors can monitor, however. Others involve contaminants and illnesses which previously could not be detected, or were rarely recognized.

Biological hazards have attracted the most attention since the Jack-In-The-Box e-coli bacteria episode of 1993 alerted the public to the vulnerability of children, especially, to mutated forms of bacteria which were once seen as harmless. Chemical contamination, however, could grab back the spotlight if and when the Environmental Protection Agency releases a report in development for nearly 16 years which reportedly shows that trace amounts of dioxin found in animal fat and dairy products can cause cancer in humans, with a risk factor as high as one victim per 1,000 consumers–or even as high as one victim per 100 consumers in the worst-case scenario.

Drafts of the EPA report were circulated for peer review in 1985, 1994, and June 2000.

“Industry officials are lobbying the Bush administration to postpone indefinitely the release of the EPA study until other
agencies, such as the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, can conduct lengthy studies [of their own],” Washington Post staff writer Eric Planin explained in an April 2001 preview of the findings. “The politically active chemical, livestock, and meatpacking industries contributed $1.2 million to the George W. Bush presidential election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics,” Planin added.

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