Today has been a busy day for the meat industry.
I awoke to news that Transatlantic Foods had recalled approximately 671,000 pounds of pork and duck products, some of which did not receive the full benefit of inspection and some that was incorrectly labeled A few hours later another recall came across my news feed…this one much larger. Wolverine Packing Co., a Detroit establishment, issued a recall for about 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products possibly contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) established a link between the ground beef products from Wolverine Packing and 11 cases within four states of e-coli illnesses. Once again, the media is abuzz and fear is circulating…Who is responsible for these illnesses? Is our food safe? Why isn’t FSIS doing a better job of regulating the sanitation of these meat processing facilities?
As the owner of a slaughter and processing facility, I can tell you that recalls (such as those today) are always on my mind. My staff and I follow these news stories closely, and, just like you, we ask ourselves how this happened and what we can do to ensure it never happens in our facility. I have great respect for the USDA officials who monitor my facility, and their commitment to animal welfare, sanitation, and documentation is uncompromising. However, despite our best attempts, there is no foolproof way to eliminate human error or food pathogens from occurring.
While proper dressing procedures within slaughter are absolutely paramount, the burden of these recalls cannot always be attributed to the processor. Like spokes on a wheel, there are various steps that occur in meat production and numerous checks and balances that must take place in order for the wheel to properly turn. If one area fails – either through natural occurances or through negligence – the wheel is left unbalanced and vulnerable. Therefore, when we examine these food recalls we must consider all areas of the system…the processor, the regulatory agencies, the sanitation procedures, the microbiological testing methods, the distribution system, and, yes, even the end user who must properly handle and cook the product.
For small facilities such as mine, the burden of this task is both a blessing and a curse. We accept a limited number of livestock daily and are able to give time and attention to each animal. This allows my staff to methodically address each critical control point of our HACCP, but it also allows the inspection staff more time to oversee our process and monitor our mistakes. Both the USDA inspectors and my staff are constantly vigilant…knowing that our reputations are on the line with each animal that enters the facility and working together to ensure that none of our names end up on the next FSIS recall.
Nicholette Niman addressed this topic earlier in the year and noted the food industry’s movement to “buy local” and to support your local farmer. “People love supporting local food and farms. But when was the last time you saw someone wearing a T-shirt that said “Support Local Slaughterhouses”? While I absolutely agree with this thought, in order for the public to support our local slaughter facilities, consumers must first know who we are. Every meat and egg product sold in the US retail market is required to carry a seal that includes an inspection ledger. Consumers can easily search this number and determine how far their food traveled and the facility that prepared it (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/inspection/mpi-directory).
I encourage anyone who questions the safety and the handling of their food to take this next step in transparency…search your processor and get to know them as a business and not just a place of blame. While this won’t eliminate the need for recalls, it will help you understand the challenges processors face and the commitment we have to provide safe food…not only for your family, but also for our own.