Antibiotic-resistant salmonella, school lunches, and Cargill’s dodgy California beef plant
By Tom Philpott | grist.org
In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.
Oh, dear. This case of salmonella poisoning seems to be resisting treatments.
• The USDA reports that a notorious California beef-packing plant run by agribusiness giant Cargill has yet again had to recall ground beef tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella—or, as the agency described it:
This particular strain of Salmonella Newport is resistant to many commonly prescribed drugs, which can increase the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals.
Treatment failure...isn’t that a fancy way of saying death? The USDA press release writer is also evidently too genteel to spell out the identity of the company in question. The press release names “Beef Packers, Inc., a Fresno, Calif., establishment.” But Cargill, the globe’s largest agribusiness firm, bought Beef Packers three years ago.
The current recall involves 22,000 pounds of ground beef. According to a proprietary Meat Wagon mathematical model, that’s enough bad meat to make 88,000 tainted Quarter Pounders. That’s not exactly chopped liver—so to speak—but it’s not as bad as the plant’s previous recall, back in August, which involved a hefty 825,769 pounds, or about 3.3 million Quarter Pounder Equivalents, worth of meat laced with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. That’s a lot of potential stomach aches—and “treatment failures.”
• That same Cargill plant supplies millions of pounds of beef per year to the National School Lunch Program.
USA Today has been doing a fantastic job of tracking this story. The paper reported recently that during the massive August recall, beef from the plant made it into school cafeterias:
Even as public health officials told residents to throw out recalled products from the Fresno plant, the federal government paid Beef Packers hundreds of thousands of dollars for almost 450,000 pounds of ground beef made from June 5 to June 23, the dates covered by the recall.F our orders were produced for the school lunch program during that period, a USA TODAY investigation found. One tested positive for salmonella Newport, the strain that prompted the recall and can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting; that order was rejected by the government. Tests on the other three orders found no salmonella, and the beef was shipped from the plant before the recall was announced.
And why should the three lots that didn’t test positive have been refused?
[L]awmakers and food safety experts say the three orders should have been rejected nonetheless. In part, that’s because the tests that led the government to release the beef are inconsistent and often wrong, says James Marsden, a professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University.
USA Today reports that the plant sold 38 million pounds of beef to the school lunch program between 2001 and 2009—making it the program’s seventh most prodigious beef supplier in the country.
• This is the same charming plant wherein workers, according to an excellent piece by AP’s Garance Burke, got busted by the USDA dragging carcasses across a filthy floor before processing. Let me quote at length:
Inspection records from March 2008 show U.S. Department of Agriculture auditors found workers in Fresno were using electric prods to coax skittish cattle through a narrow chute leading into the slaughterhouse.
When three cows refused to budge, they were stunned and rendered unconscious “so that they could be pulled through the restrainer to be shackled, hung and bled,” the records state.
The USDA considers electric prods a humane tool when they are used properly on walking animals.
But dragging unconscious cattle could increase the risk for E. coli and salmonella contamination because cow hides can pick up bacteria from feces that sometimes collect in or around the chute, experts said.
“All kinds of feces and urine get into those chutes because they typically aren’t cleaned out during the day because too many animals need to get in,” said Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinary inspector.
• In response to the current recall, U.S. Represenatative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, is calling on the USDA to shut down the plant.
• Cargill’s response to De Lauro’s complaint is priceless (quoted from Food Safety News):
Since Beef Packers Inc.‘s voluntary product recall in August 2009, we have undertaken a comprehensive examination of our processes and believe that this review can continue without the closure of the Fresno operation. This comprehensive examination has already resulted in process improvements and implementation of additional food safety enhancements at the Fresno operation. Additionally, we will be convening a panel of respected food safety and public health experts to conduct a third-party evaluation of our Fresno business.
How do I even untangle this? The company is pointing to the success of its post-August-recall safety procedures as evidence that it already has everything under control, even though it just got busted again sending out meat tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. Huh?
• Back to school lunches—in an excellent bit of muckraking, USA Today has revealed that Jack in the Box and its fast-food peers demand significantly higher standards from meat suppliers than does the National School Lunch Program. This actually makes perfect sense. Fast food companies face tremendous pressure to keep costs down so that they can turn a profit churning out stuff like dollar cheeseburgers. But price pressure on school cafeterias is even harsher. The government allots $2.68 per kid. Beyond overhead and labor, that leaves something like 90 cents per kid per day to spend on the ingredients on the plate. No wonder the program is doing business with the likes of Cargill’s infamous California plant. Beggars can’t be choosers.
• Cargill’s plant isn’t the lunch program’s only major beef supplier supplier to have had serious food safety issues in recent years. Back in Feb. ‘08, a California meatpacker called Westland got busted sending downers cows through the meat line, resulting in a recall of 143 million pounds of beef and the collapse of the company. Westland had been a major seller to the school lunch program, according to the above-linked USA Today piece, supplying 103 million pounds of beef between 2001 and 2008—fourth most of any packer. The USDA revealed at the time that 37 million pounds of beef involved in the recall made it into school cafeterias.
• Finally, a note on MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant staph infection that now kills more Americans than AIDS. In the extremely limited testing that’s been done do far, MRSA has been shown to be widespread in the U.S. pig herd—not surprising, given that factory-farmed pigs get doused daily with antibiotics. We already knew it was also prevalent in the European pig herd, too, and this article from Meat International, along with lots of boilerplate hedging, confirms that.
Grist food editor Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Follow my Twitter feed; contact me at tphilpott[at]grist[dot]org.