The President has a whopping new food safety problem: Hundreds of thousands of pounds of contaminated beef in the food chain & little hope of rounding up all the poisoned product...
The June 24 Class 1 (you could die) recall of 41,000+ pounds of beef primal cuts from Colorado firm JBS Swift Beef Company for E coli 0157:H7 contamination has just been expanded to an incredible 421,000 pounds. It's incredible from a poundage standpoint, but not incredible from a food safety standpoint. The original USDA advisory noted that the cows slaughtered for the beef had been processed in April, so food safety experts spotted the potential for a massive expansion of the recall the moment they received the first notice. E coli 0157:H7 is an incredibly toxic bacterium which can cause everything from violent stomach upset to permanent renal failure to death. To date, there are 24 illnesses in multiple states, of which at least 18 appear to be associated. And keep in mind that for every one person who is a verified food poisoning victim, the CDC has an algorithm that estimates that there are 35-50 more cases that never get tracked. That's between 630 and 900 people already ill. The numbers will grow. A "traceback" investigation has begun, run jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. This means investigators will be contacting state and local health authorities to see if there are any more reported illnesses.
Consumers, however, do not generally comprehend the idea that a recall is at the whim of the company doing the producing. Recalls are VOLUNTARY. There is no requirement legally that the products be tracked down by the processor and yanked from store shelves, out of restaurant freezers, out of community and church group food lockers. There's no requirement that grocers or chefs not use contaminated products. And no private, self-deputized FDA or USDA agents such as your intrepid blogger will be rifling through your freezer and demolishing contaminated products. Worse, the contaminated meat is well-distributed along the food chain, since the cows were processed two months ago.
It gets worse: There's almost no way to tell where the beef is, and USDA has not released a list of where the contaminated beef was sent, because JBS Swift Beef Company is refusing to release the list. From the USDA release: Each box bears the establishment number "EST. 969" inside the USDA mark of inspection as well as the identifying package date of "042109" and a time stamp ranging from "0618" to "1130." However, these products were sent to establishments and retail stores nationwide for further processing and will likely not bear the establishment number "EST. 969" on products available for direct consumer purchase.
What can you do? Seriously, avoid beef like it's the plague. Right now, it is. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which monitors meat, poultry and eggs, is still without a leader. The policy reforms needed to address this kind of issue involve stringent labeling and re-labeling requirements, government-mandated inspections, required reporting of test results, better first responders on the local level who can identify illness patterns, civil and criminal penalties for food poisoners. This recall is another good argument for having a system of many, smaller, local processing plants for food, rather than single, jumbo facilities that can poison the entire country with the lowest possible effort; food safety is yet another critical reason we need to re-localize the food economy. But at the moment all of these safety reforms are merely wish-list fantasies, because we're operating under pre-Obama-era food safety standards. These were bad before, and they're still bad now. And it seems like we need to get the Food Safety Working Group on the batphone....
For much more information as the recall develops, check out Bill Marler's Marler Blog. Mr. Marler's the pre-eminent food poisoning attorney who should be head of USDA's Food Safety And Inspection Service...but he hasn't been appointed yet. And right now, he's going to have his hands full suing JBS, and anyone else who's selling contaminated beef.
More info: (PDF) A list of the products subject to the expanded recall attached – 104 Pages.
The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. JBS Swift Beef Company consumer hotline is (800) 685-6328...but they're not going to tell you anything, either.
Related: *Ob Fo is changing the Food Safety Grade of "D" for Dangerous to "D" For Disaster. *How effective are voluntary recalls? Not very. Why doesn't USDA have someone leading the Food Safety and Inspection Service? Excuses, Excuses.