Safer meat: Preventing foodborne illness in the US meat supply

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The US meat and poultry supply has been lauded as the safest in the world.  So why do we keep hearing about recalls of US industry meat due to illness-causing pathogen contamination? According to the CDC, it is estimated that approximately 48 million people (or one in every six Americans) get sick from eating tainted food every year, with a great deal of pathogens found in raw meat. The way meat is processed has been improved over the last decade. However, due to the continuing expansion of centralized industrial meat production, the potential for food-borne disease outbreak remains a huge public health issue today.

Food-borne diseases are caused by consuming food contaminated by bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins.  Raw meat is believed to be one of the major sources of food-borne diseases, since it can be contaminated during the entire handling process—slaughter, distribution, storage and cooking. Numerous pathogens continually plague our nation’s meat supply each year, namely E. coli 0157:H7 and multiple strains of Salmonella.

According to Dr. Tauxe of the CDC, our national meat supply is prone to contamination due to processing methods, including the utilization of huge factory farms containing “hundreds of thousands” of animals under one roof, as well as the fact that multiple animals often make their way into a single package of ground meat.

Another reason for continual meat contamination has to do with safety policy.  A pathogen is labeled as an “adulterant” if it has been proven to be injurious to health.  Currently, only E. coli has been labeled an adulterant by the USDA.  Salmonella infection, though, still continues to cause health issues when ingested and has been on the rise this year.  Other policy challenges include the common usage of antibiotics in meat industry animals (which propagates the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens), as well as historical alliances between the government and our country’s agribusiness, as revealed by Eric Schlosser in his food industry expose, Fast Food Nation.

The 2011 Food Safety and Modernization Act aims to enhance food safety through further inspection and investigation of meat processors and distributors.  But in order to assure the safety of our meat supply in terms of food-borne disease prevention, we propose that the USDA specifically expand its labeling of adulterants to create stricter food pathogen guidelines.  In the future, the design of one-room holding pens and the usage of industrial animal antibiotics also need to be strongly re-considered by food safety policymakers if we are to save billions in health spending on food-borne illness treatment and preserve the health of our country.

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3 Responses to “Safer meat: Preventing foodborne illness in the US meat supply”

  1. mbc46 Says:

    I really appreciate this post. The trade off between cheaper and safer permeates so much (all?) of public health. More adulterants, more inspectors, redesign of holding pens, discontinuance of antibiotics … these will all push up the cost of meat, but arguably will make the meat we eat safer. I wonder if we push up the cost of meat, then people will be more inclined to eat lower on the food chain, maybe more fruits and vegetables. Perhaps there is an argument to be made that more expensive meat will have more positive consequences that safer meat.

  2. Food Safety Articles Meat Says:

    […] Safer meat: Preventing foodborne illness in the US meat supply … The 2011 Food Safety and Modernization Act aims to enhance food safety through further inspection and investigation of meat processors and distributors. But in order to assure the safety of our meat supply in terms of […]

  3. wordpresstripper Says:

    Shocking that only e.coli is labelled as an adulterant. It seems like reform only comes after repeated wide-spread contamination and illness. It’s unfortunate that the industry does not further raise the bar or that the FDA does not have the clout to enforce one. As mbc46 says, making food cheap isn’t necessarily the best for the country. If you took into account the cost of sickness and recalls, might a safer standard be economical, if not moral?

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