Monday, June 11, 2007

Wholesome Beef

DairyQueen at The Ethicurean posted a nice piece on the latest beef recall due to E. coli 0157:H7 contamination:

Rhetorical Questions About USDA Recalls

She (or he, not sure) reports that the company doing the recalling, United Food Group (UFG), began with a 75,000 pound recall on June 3, then expanded it to 370,000 pounds on June 6.

Well, on Saturday, June 9, FSIS (the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service) reported that the UFG expanded it further to 5.7 million pounds. Holy hamburgers, Batman, that's a lot of beef:

California Firm Expands Recall of Ground Beef for Possible E. coli O157:H7 Contamination (Includes products. Oh no, Trader Joe's.)

This is a voluntary recall, as DairyQueen points out, since the USDA lacks recall authority. Whether the UFG has decided to conduct it out of concern for mankind, or concern for their bottom line means less to me than that it was done. However, when it comes to food safety, recalling is like plugging a leak; it's best to fix a problem at the source. Maybe in this case that means favoring grass over grain as cattle feed, since I read somewhere that feeding a cow grain can increase the size and number of E. coli 0157:H7 colonies along its digestive tract. I don't mean to infringe on the territory of animal husbandry experts though; I know more about beans than cows.

I can see the USDA's quandary. On one hand they're expected to promote agriculture, on the other hand, police it. We could help them out of, what might be perceived as their conflict of interest, by transferring their food safety function to a more dedicated group. (Have I mentioned the Safe Food Act 2007 would do that?)

Back to DairyQueen and the FSIS website.
Wait, one more tangent... People are referring to this as a USDA recall, yet nowhere on the USDA's homepage did I read about this recall. You can't read about it on the FDA's site either, nor their CFSAN (Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition) site. You have to find out which agency, in this case FSIS, is responsible. It blows my mind that the FDA is responsible for cheese pizza, but the USDA is responsible for pepperoni pizza. There should be one-stop shopping for food safety news. (Have I mentioned that the as yet unpassed Safe Food Act 2007 would provide this coordination?)

Back to DairyQueen and the FSIS website, I promise.
Towards the end of her post, DairyQueen talks about the FSIS "Ask Karen" application. (Click the pic to give Karen a try.):

DairyQueen asked Karen: "Hi Karen. Is American beef safe to eat?"
Karen replied: "All beef is inspected for wholesomeness. Beef found in retail stores is either USDA inspected or inspected by state systems that have standards equal to the Federal government. Each steer and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The Passed and Inspected by USDA seal insures the beef is wholesome and free from disease."

So I asked Karen: "What does wholesome mean?"
Karen replied: "I'm sorry, I don't understand your question. I am trained to answer food safety questions about foodborne illness, and the safe storage, handling and preparation of meat, poultry and egg products. Please reword your question and try again."
I appreciate that the USDA is inspecting all beef for wholesomeness. It troubles me though that they cannot explain what wholesome means.

I would love for someone to explain to me what wholesome means.
Photo of USDA beef inspection (for grading) from Encyclopedia Britannica.

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