Lawyer sees rise in meat recalls heralding more food danger

With meat/poultry recalls running at a near-record annual high even before 2000 ends, some critics are calling for more meat sampling and testing.

One lawyer specializing in food-safety lawsuits for victims now argues for mandatory tests on all meat orders and a hold on shipments until test results are known.

But waiting the typical two or three days required for test results would spell the end of the fresh-ground hamburger as we know it today, the meat trade says, calling the mandatory "test and hold" idea impossible or too costly to implement across the board. Many industry players have been formulating their own new food-safety strategies under the government's revamped meat-inspection program.

Industry and government meat-and-poultry safety initiatives, however accelerated and refined they have become over the last decade, have not reassured lawyer William Marler of Seattle, Wash. He represented a plaintiff winning a $15.6-million settlement with the Jack in the Box fast-food chain after an E. coli outbreak in undercooked hamburger in the early 1990s.

"Already this year the U.S. has seen more meat recalls of any year since 1993, when federal and state governments increased their efforts to keep the meat supply safe in the aftermath of the massive Jack-in-the-Box outbreak,"Marler said this week in a publicity release.

"However, these recalls are apparently not preventing outbreaks," added Marler, whose Marler Clark law firm also represented plaintiffs in food-illness lawsuits filed against Odwalla Juice, KFC, McDonald's, Hardees, Wendy's, Subway, Sizzler, Carl's Jr. and Costco.

In disputing Marler's claim that the recalls herald expanding problems with the meat and poultry supply, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cites more sophisticated tests, larger test samples and improved safety monitoring systems for boosting the recall rate.

And many food purveyors, including Jack in the Box, have been praised for enhanced meat-handling safety procedures.

As of Dec. 6, SafetyAlerts, a reporting service, listed 72 meat/poultry recalls, including some linked to identical sources. Marler says federal and state data show 77 such recalls, compared to 62 last year, 44 in 1998, 27 in 1997, 25 in 1996, 42 in 1995 and 50 in 1994.

"Recalls are announced when the cow is already in the chute," Marler said. "A perfect example is the (Dec. 2-5) recall of 1.1 million pounds of ground beef distributed by American Foods Group on Nov. 2nd and 3rd - over a month ago. How much of this contaminated meat has already been consumed?" he said.

Marler is advocating what he calls "a more effective method," requiring meat processors to test for potentially deadly pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 and holding up distribution until results show the meat "truly safe for human consumption."

Marler said he wants federal and state regulators to impose the so-called "test and hold" procedure - already used voluntarily in the meat and poultry industries - "on all meat supplied to consumers."

The American Meat Institute (AMI) says that for scheduled testing of ground beef to be shipped frozen, holding for test results already is a common routine in the meat industry. "It is hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't hold," AMI spokeswoman Janet Riley told StoreAlliance.com.

But the same procedure becomes an increasingly costly liability when applied to highly perishable fresh ground beef, beef processors and the AMI say.

Holding refrigerated but unfrozen ground beef for the several days now required to get final results on many tests raises not only storage costs and shipping logistics nightmares, but also the probability of a bacterial invasion -- even if there weren't one to begin with -- as meat quality starts to seriously deteriorate after two-three days, they said.

Still, when the USDA conducts scheduled sampling and testing, "every meat plant is given the option, and is encouraged, to hold (shipment) of the lot (batch) of product" until sample-test results are verified safe, said Chris Church, a spokesperson for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The agency runs the federal meat/poultry inspection services.

Church said the "test-and-hold" procedure is often followed in the meat trade, although data on how often is unavailable.

"We'd love to have an instant E. coli or salmonella test," AMI's Riley said. "It would be impossible" to test all the meat going to consumers, she said, noting that every sample pulled and tested is destroyed by the testing methods.

As testing technology now stands, it not only destroys the meat or poultry examined, but test results reflect only what was in the sample and not what was in the load from which the sample came, Riley said.

Meat industry experts and AMI point out that bacteria or other food-borne pathogens can easily be isolated in a tiny portion of a load and thereby escape detection in the sampling/testing process.

Likewise, the detection of a pathogen in one sample is not a good indicator of how safe the entire load may be, based on statistical margins of error.

"Just the fact that recalls are up isn't necessarily an indicator of overall food safety," Church said, citing sharply enhanced detection, recall and communication procedures.

By Worth Wren JR., StoreAlliance.com Staff Writer

To view part two of this three-parter, click here.