Thursday, one day after the Bush administration announced plans to phase out salmonella testing for ground beef bound for school lunch programs, the administration backtracked in the face of rising consumer ire. Officials now insist they will keep the vigilant or excessive, according to the beef industry screening processes implemented in the final year of the Clinton administration. And while consumer groups chalked up this victory, they are well aware of new battles on the horizon, including the looming possibility of irradiating truckloads of meat rather than inspecting every piece.
Salmonella, which causes 600 deaths in the U.S. each year, can spur reactions ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to death, with symptoms being especially acute among children and the elderly, whose immune systems are often unable to deal with the bacteria.
The administration's reversal disappointed the meat-processing industry, which has long opposed the stricter screening guidelines, which it claims are too expensive to implement and result in an unnecessary waste of meat. In the year since the Clinton standards went into effect, for example, 4.8 million pounds of ground beef (out of a total of 120 million pounds inspected) were rejected because it contained salmonella.
While the beef industry has legitimate concerns, according to Catherine Donnelly, professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont, consumers' concerns also are very real. "When you're looking at food testing for schools, you're seeing a group that's particularly susceptible to food-borne illnesses. In this situation, the meat industry really needs to look beyond financial considerations.
"Ground beef can be particularly problematic in terms of illnesses," says Donnelly, "because it comes in contact with lots of machinery during the grinding process. So it's much more likely to be contaminated internally than, say, a steak, which is only exposed externally to bacteria."
In order to keep ground beef safe, Donnelly stresses the importance of a sanitary preparation process. But, she says, "controls on the cooking end of things like adhering to specific temperatures can be shaky, so it's safer to have stringent controls throughout the entire production end of things."
As the debate over safe meat continues, the search for alternatives to costly screening procedures will no doubt go into high gear. For instance, the USDA wants us to consider irradiating our meat zapping it with a sterilizing ray in order to kill any lurking bacteria. The process, despite its vaguely creepy space-age image, is completely safe, says Donnelly. But it has not gained acceptance from much of the public.
And part of that concern is valid, says Donnelly, although not for the reason one might think. "At this point, the primary fear is: Will irradiation be used as a panacea for lax standards throughout the meat production process?"
In other words, will beef processors feel free to toss anything and everything into ground beef because they know it will be zapped clean at the end of the day?
As a second grader might say: E-e-eew!