Despite numerous illnesses among consumers, federal meat inspectors fail to test steaks and other mechanically tenderized beef products for a dangerous strain of E. coli, according to a newly released federal audit.
That failure continues, according to the audit, “even though these products present some additional risk for E. coli contamination.”
Food safety advocates were quick to respond, saying the report confirms their long-held suspicions about failures in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat inspection system.
“We have heard the agency say this is a problem, yet they have never put out clear instructions to inspect this meat, and that is inexcusable,” Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist and food safety expert with Food & Water Watch, said Monday.
According to the audit, the USDA’s meat inspection division — the Food Safety and Inspection Service — responded to the findings by saying it had limited resources. It also considered mechanically tenderized meat “to be at a low level of risk for E. coli and did not see the need for testing.”
But the auditors recommended testing, and the agency agreed that if its own continuing studies revealed a “significant risk” it would propose such testing.
The audit report by the USDA’s inspector general comes three months after a series of stories published in The Kansas City Star profiled several people who became ill from E. coli poisoning after eating medium rare, mechanically tenderized steaks at restaurants.
Normally E. coli would only be present on the surface of intact meats such as steaks, and would be killed during cooking. But the process of mechanically blading that meat uses automated needles or knives to tenderize tougher cuts of beef, forcing pathogens into the center.
Studies have shown that E. coli may then survive there and sicken consumers if the meat is not adequately cooked.
The Star’s series included the story of Margaret Lamkin, a Sioux City, Iowa, grandmother who was forced to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life after she ate a contaminated medium-rare mechanically tenderized steak at a restaurant.
The newspaper’s series, called “Beef’s Raw Edges,” noted that food safety advocates believe there could be many unknown victims of eating bladed or mechanically tenderized beef, but it's difficult to determine exactly how many because the products are not required to be labeled when sold to restaurants and grocery stores.
Those products have been the subject of a number of meat recalls, including 248,000 pounds of chopped steak that caused 19 illnesses in 16 states, and 1,000 pounds of tenderized beef that sickened three middle school students in Massachusetts, both in 2009.
And late last year federal officials issued a public health alert after potentially contaminated tenderized steaks were shipped into the U.S. from Canada.
In the new report issued late Friday, auditors said the USDA failed to conduct adequate testing on those products.
Several years ago, however, USDA officials themselves had begun urging the meat industry to voluntarily label the products after their studies showed a higher risk of E. coli contamination.
After three years of lobbying by consumer advocates, food inspection service officials also proposed a rule that would require labels on mechanically tenderized beef so that grillers and restaurant patrons would know they may want to cook those cuts thoroughly.
But that proposed rule remains mired in the White House bureaucracy.
The Star's stories prompted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to ask the Office of Management and Budget to expedite the review process.
“Currently, consumers are largely unaware that this risk exists, and many consumers do not routinely cook beef cuts such as steaks well enough to eliminate such pathogens,” Gillibrand said in her December letter to the office.
Although food safety advocates and some in Congress have blamed the Office of Management and Budget for holding up the proposed rule, the audit suggests that the budget office may actually be awaiting further data from the USDA.
Risk assessments help the OMB evaluate such rules, but the inspector general report noted that the USDA is still working on one and doesn’t expect to finish its studies until later this month.
When the budget office finally releases the rule, the USDA will invite comments from the public and the meat industry which, in the past at least, has opposed such labels.
Either way, consumer advocates say that without mandatory labeling Americans are facing yet another summer grilling season that could produce more illnesses.
“We have definitely missed the boat for another year,” Corbo said Monday. “People are already hauling out their barbecue grills and we are probably still months from finalizing this (labeling) rule.”
In addition to problems with mechanically tenderized meat products, the audit was also critical of the meat inspection agency’s overall testing procedures for boxed beef that is later ground into hamburger and other products.
Auditors found Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors failed to do E. coli testing on boxed beef cuts that could end up being further processed.
As the auditors noted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that E. coli O157:H7, which can be found in many sources, causes about 73,000 illness and 61 deaths annually in the U.S.
Most people who consume beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 recover within 5 to 7 days, but for others — especially the elderly and the very young — the outcome could be a serious illness or death.