Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Guaranteed safe (?) At what cost?

You may have read of the shocking toll taken by Escherichia coli O157:H7 in the U.S. and the apparent increasing incidence of the disease. E. coli O157:H7 infection often causes severe bloody diarrhoea and abdominal cramps that may last for 5 to 10 days. In some people, particularly young children and the elderly, the infection can also cause haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the debris causes kidneys failure. About 8% of patients may develop HUS. Sometimes the patients recover after a long illness, but a significant number of children have required kidney transplants.

Topps Meat Company, a US company specializing in manufacture of frozen ground beef, initially recalled 330,000 pounds of beef hamburger patties because of E. coli contamination. There had been a number of cases of O157:H7 infection tied to its products. On the 29th September, the company extended the recall to 21.7 million pounds of ground beef, bringing the total recalls in the U.S from April this year to over 30 million pounds of red meat, mostly hamburger. A week later, the company announced that it was going out of business, citing inability “to overcome the reality of a recall this large”.

Clearly, 21.7 million pounds is more than a single day’s production, so there is some sort of systemic failure in the plant. An inability to identify unique batches of product probably contributed to the size of the recall. The USDA also cited the company for “inadequate process controls in the non-ground meat production line”.

The recall highlights the problem of regulations based on product testing. In the US, E. coli O157:H7 is regarded as an adulterant; there is zero tolerance for its presence, so if it is found, the whole product lot must be withdrawn. However, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate total absence of a micro-organism from a product – even with large numbers of samples, it is highly likely that a low-level non-homogeneous contamination would be missed. I am told that the product in question had actually passed two levels of testing and that the recall began only when consumers became ill.

The problem is compounded by the predilection of Americans for consumption of hamburgers cooked rare. Doug Powell at Kansas State University has said many times (and again today) that colour is a poor indicator of sufficient cooking and that consumers should use a meat thermometer. Nobody should be made ill by the food they consume and no company has a right to claim that their small size should exempt them from running properly controlled safe production processes, but consumers must take some responsibility for their own safety. At least one of the consumers who contracted the O157:H7 infection admitted that she had cooked the burgers until they were pink inside.

Raw ground meat is inherently hazardous – it is manufactured from animals that may carry bacteria capable of causing human disease. It is almost impossible to guarantee that some of these bacteria will not be found on the carcase. When the meat is ground, the exterior surfaces and interior tissues are all mixed together, spreading the contamination throughout the meat. (That’s why you can cook a steak rare and produce a beautiful, safe meal, but cooking ground meat rare can leave the pathogens in the centre undamaged and capable of causing illness).

The whole thing is getting out of hand in the US. Companies are recalling huge amounts of food, the authorities are closing processing plants, lawyers are suing for massive damages and consumer advocates are calling for guarantees that food is safe. The result can be only a loss of confidence in the food supply and an increase in costs to the consumer. I see some parallels developing in the case of Campylobacter in poultry in New Zealand

From the industry point of view, the answer lies in greater process control based on a thorough risk analysis, not on discredited end product testing.

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