As consumers, we take it for granted that the food we prepare for ourselves and our families is safe to eat. Unfortunately, all too often, it’s not. Every year, food-borne illnesses sicken 48 million Americans (or one out of six), with 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 killed.
That’s why it’s promising that federal regulators have proposed requiring all processors of raw ground beef to keep records so retailers can more easily trace the source of any contaminated product. The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal is long overdue, and its scope is too narrow, but it recognizes that to depend on the food industry to take these steps voluntarily is to gamble with our collective public health.
A 2011 salmonella outbreak was what exposed the record-keeping gap in the nation’s food-safety chain. The illness, which sickened at least 20 people, was linked to ground beef sold at stores in the Scarborough-based Hannaford chain. The company’s meat-grinding records met the federal requirements that were in place at the time of the outbreak. Nonetheless, after recalling 17,000 pounds of hamburger, Hannaford voluntarily put in place stricter documentation.
But the USDA has dragged its feet on requiring all stores to improve record-keeping, even though the agency has been aware for years that the practice is critical to the success of food-safety investigations. Grocery stores buy, grind and sell beef from multiple distributors. Without careful records, the USDA has found, it’s impossible to trace every bit of that meat to its source – and to keep more people from getting sick. More thorough record-keeping is expected to cut by a third the incidence of illnesses from an E. coli strain linked to ground beef.
Since 1998, the USDA has recommended – though not required – that stores keep better beef-grinding records. However, the agency knows that retailers aren’t likely to act unless there’s a mandate. As a spokesman told the Press Herald in 2012: “… industry-wide there has not been good adoption of the best practices guidance that we have put out there.”
And it’s not clear why the proposed USDA regulations would apply only to beef processors and not to businesses that sell other ground meats. Along with ground beef, ground chicken causes more hospitalizations than other meats in the U.S. food supply, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
What’s more, a 10-year U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of food-borne illnesses revealed that “more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity,” largely from infections caused by listeria or salmonella.
When you sit down to dinner, the last thing you should have to think about is whether what’s in front of you will make you sick or even kill you. The USDA rules represent a good start toward improving food safety, and we need to keep the pressure on to ensure that this effort continues at a national level.