More transparency needed to make beef safer
The Kansas City Star
A yearlong examination of the beef industry by The Kansas City Star shows that while it has made strides in quality and safety, serious problems remain. Many consumers are uninformed about the risks of certain questionable production techniques, and the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock may be contributing to the growth of drug-resistant pathogens.
The revelations point to the need for greater diligence on the part of regulators, and more transparency. Consumers need clear information about how their meat has been processed, starting with what’s on the labels.
A key finding in The Star’s series was that much of the beef which ends up our plates has been mechanically tenderized, a process in which needles or blades pierce the meat, occasionally injecting it with marinade.
If there are any pathogens on the meat surface, mechanical tenderization may drive bacteria deeper inside, where they are harder to kill by cooking.
The American Meat Institute, an industry group, has acknowledged that between 2000 and 2009 at least eight beef recalls involved mechanically tenderized meat. But a consumer advocacy group believes the process could have been culpable in about 100 E. coli outbreaks.
A forthcoming risk assessment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat-safety division is expected to shed more light on mechanical tenderization hazards. At the very least, more disclosure should be a first step. Labeling should be required.
The industry, which also uses its economic and political heft to influence government dietary guidelines, says the risk from mechanically tenderized meat “is not significantly higher.” But even if that’s true, consumers ought to know how it was processed and they should be cautioned about the need for thorough cooking of such beef.
A more worrisome issue is the widespread use of antibiotics in beef production, a topic on which debate rages within the industry and an area where the government has failed to provide clear standards.
Such drugs encourage quicker fattening of cattle, but as The Star report found, many experts believe overuse is contributing to the growth of bacteria highly resistant to antibiotics — and may be involved in cases of human infection.
Industry officials say too little is known to compare livestock antibiotic use and human cases, and they cite a Food and Drug Administration statement saying conclusions are “difficult to draw …” But other experts, such as former FDA Commissioner Donald Kennedy, told The Star there’s “no question” non-therapeutic use of such drugs has contributed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Many veterinarians say they are frustrated by the lack of definitive guidelines — a clear sign regulators haven’t done their job. One federal judge has even ordered the FDA to stop “dilly-dallying” and hold hearings on the issue. The case is now on appeal.
One of the benefits of modern agriculture is cheaper food, and that trend has contributed to the nation’s steadily rising living standards over the years.
But food safety is also critical. While increased safety will impose costs, The Star’s series shows that as the beef industry has grown and consolidated, regulatory standards have failed to keep up. Higher standards for all producers are in the industry’s long-term interest; they buttress product safety and credibility.
The safety record of larger processing plants has improved, but Big Beef has more to do.