December 18, 2001Meat Industry Wins Rights to Sell Filthy Ground Beef

Consumer Groups Urge Congress and Bush Administration to Take Steps to Ensure Safety of the Meat Supply

Statement of Caroline Smith De Waal, Director of Food Safety


The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Case of Supreme Beef vs. USDA finds that the current law governing the safety of red meat doesn’t permit the Agriculture Department (USDA) to close plants that are producing large amounts of Salmonella-tainted ground beef. While the American Meat Institute says it is ‘gratified’ by the decision, consumers should be horrified by it.


A government Salmonella test can assess conditions inside a meat grinder that traditional government inspection can’t see.  This decision removes the government’s ability to quickly close meat processors that repeatedly fail to meet limits on harmful bacteria in ground beef.


The Center for Science in the Public Interest and other members of the Safe Food Coalition urge Congress to take prompt action to give USDA authority to enforce the Salmonella standards and to establish testing regimes for such deadly hazards as Listeria and E.coli O157:H7.


Specifically, we ask Congress to:


*  Approve legislation that would give USDA explicit authority to set and enforce standards to control Salmonella and other illness-causing bacteria in the food supply.  USDA should be instructed to enforce those standards to the full extent of its authority under the law, including withdrawing federal inspectors from plants that repeatedly violate pathogen reduction standards.


*  Approve emergency USDA funding to provide additional inspectors to oversee beef grinding operations, to increase Salmonella testing in slaughter and processing plants, and to re-evaluate existing HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) systems in meat and poultry processing plants.


Without strong government controls, people who eat ground beef face a greater risk of getting sick.  The Fifth Circuit decision gives USDA more authority over beetles in the back room than over harmful microbes in the meat supply.  That is a giant step backwards for the safety of ground beef.


Consumers should use great care to thoroughly cook all ground beef until it is one hundred and sixty degrees.  High-risk consumers (children, elderly and immune-compromised) may want to avoid ground beef products altogether.  Such caution is warranted until Congress restores USDA’s authority to shut down dirty plants.