Earlier this month, the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS Tolleson, recalled1 more than 6.9 million pounds of raw beef processed in its Arizona facility due to possible contamination with Salmonella enterica of the serotype Newport, a more unusual strain of Salmonella.2 The recalled products were processed between July 26 and September 7, 2018.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “The products subject to recall bear establishment number ‘EST. 267’ inside the USDA mark of inspection. These items were shipped to retail locations and institutions nationwide.” In all, the recall affects 49 different JBS product lines, including its grass fed beef sold under the Grass Run Farms name.3
The first reported illness linked to this Salmonella outbreak was reported September 19. Between August 5 and September 6, another 56 individuals in 16 states fell ill from eating the contaminated products. As noted by USDA:4
“Consumption of food contaminated with Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial foodborne illnesses. The most common symptoms of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within 12 to 72 hours after eating the contaminated product.
The illness usually lasts four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment. In some persons, however, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. Older adults, infants and persons with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop a severe illness. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact their health care provider …
FSIS [U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service] is concerned that some product may be frozen and in consumers’ freezers. Consumers who have purchased these products are urged not to consume them. These products should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase.”
According to former USDA food safety specialist Carl Custer, this is the largest recall of ground beef related to Salmonella contamination ever recorded.5 But just how does the meat of 13,000 animals get contaminated with a pathogen like Salmonella in the first place?
Why Contamination Affects Such Large Amounts of Meat
The answer is quite simple. While many think of a pack of ground beef as being the meat from an individual cow, it’s actually an amalgam of meat from many different cows — a single fast food hamburger can contain meat from more than 1,000 animals,6 and all you need is one sick animal to contaminate nearly unlimited amounts of meat as it all runs through the same processing equipment and gets mixed together in gigantic batches.
It’s also important to realize that contamination is far more common than you might suspect — not just from potentially harmful bacteria but also drugs, including banned ones. As recently reported by Consumer Reports,7 drugs such as ketamine (a hallucinogenic anesthetic), phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory pain reliever) and chloramphenicol (a potent and dangerous antibiotic), are all found in the U.S. meat supply.
A recent Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of food testing done by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015 reveals 83 percent of all supermarket meats — including turkey, pork, beef and chicken products — were contaminated with Enterococcus faecalis, i.e., fecal bacteria, and a high percentage had antibiotic-resistant bacteria.8,9
Sixty-two percent of ground beef samples were contaminated with drug-resistant Enterococcus faecalis, 26 percent of which were resistant to tetracyclines. Considering the high contamination rate, the fact that more people aren’t sickened and/or killed on a routine basis is likely a testament to the efficacy of the human immune system.
Dairy Farm Identified as Source of Origin of Salmonella Infection
Knowing that it takes just one sick animal to contaminate enormous amounts of meat, the next question would probably be: Where did the sick animal come from and why was it allowed into the meat supply? According to a report by New Food Economy,10 the outbreak appears to have originated at a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) for dairy cows. Joe Fassler writes:
“That’s important, because dairy cows processed for meat turn out to be a kind of food safety blind spot … [D]airy cows sickened by Salmonella are more likely than healthy ones to be sent to meat plants for slaughter.
Once there, they’re likely to be ground up and used as filler in thousands of pounds of beef, dramatically increasing their risk potential. Perhaps most surprisingly, there’s no system in place to track or disarm this risk.
In fact, thanks to a quirk in food safety law, meatpackers aren’t required to test for Salmonella. And even when it is present, the government can’t really do anything about it — not even if millions of pounds of tainted product are at stake.
While we may never know the exact details of this outbreak, we can look to previous recalls for clues — and established facts point to a massive, ongoing food safety crisis hidden in plain sight.”
Indeed, the Newport serotype of Salmonella implicated in this outbreak is strongly linked to dairy cows.11 They’re a primary carrier of this rarer strain, and as early as 2002 the CDC warned drug-resistant Salmonella Newport in dairy cattle was a growing threat to public health.12 At that time, the agency said S. Newport accounted for about 140,000 cases of salmonellosis each year, or about 10 percent of all cases.
An outbreak of S. Newport in ground beef that occurred between October 2016 and July 2017 has also been traced back to dairy cows.13 “But how does Salmonella Newport get into dairy cows in the first place, and why is that strain so likely to end up in our hamburgers? This part of the story that has to do with biology, economics and regulation — and it’s where things start to get very interesting,” Fassler writes.
Sick Dairy Cows Get Sold for Meat
As explained by Fassler in his New Food Economy article, dairy farming is all about productivity. Each cow must be as productive as possible to make it worth keeping. Once a cow’s ability to produce milk goes down, she will be culled,14 meaning sold for meat. However, while this is standard practice, it’s an unfortunate one that significantly raises public health risks.
The reason why a cow’s milk production goes down is typically due either to old age or illness — including Salmonella infection, and S. Newport infection in particular.
As noted in a promotional pamphlet15 by veterinary drugmaker Zoetis, one of the primary symptoms of subclinical Salmonella infection in cows is a drop in milk production, typically by about 2.5 pounds of milk per day. And, since only low producers are sold for meat, this means the ground beef you buy is far more likely to contain the meat of old or sick cows than healthy ones.
The reason dairy cows are typically used for ground beef specifically is because they’re bred for milking and not for juicy steaks. Hence at least 20 percent of the ground beef on the U.S. market comes from culled dairy cows.16
“In this way, a strange kind of logic plays out across the industry: The sicker an animal is, the more likely it is to enter the food supply. Because when cows stop producing milk for any reason — whether it’s due to age, stress or disease — we usually end up eating them,”Fassler writes.
What’s more, while Salmonella only poses a mild risk in milk, thanks to required pasteurization, meat is not pasteurized in the same manner. Many also enjoy their hamburgers on the rare side, which further magnifies the risk of infection.
Inadequate Sanitation Poses Severe Infection Risk
Unfortunately, infected dairy cow meat can even affect grass fed products, as evidenced in this recall. While CAFO meat really should not be used as filler in certified grass fed products, the infection may still spread via contaminated processing equipment, which by law must take place only once every 24 hours. As noted by Angela Anandappa, founding director of the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation:17
“When you have a six-week window where you have many, many different types of products implicated, it appears to be a sanitation issue. If equipment wasn’t adequately cleaned, Salmonella could have taken up residence. That’s very possible here.”
Safety risks are further magnified by the fact that 80 percent of U.S. beef products are processed by just four slaughtering companies: Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS USA and National Beef.18,19
With so much meat being processed by so few companies, any given outbreak is capable of affecting enormous amounts of product. As noted by Albert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute, “As you become more and more consolidated, with fewer and fewer redundancies, the opportunities for catastrophic breakdowns expand.”20
Salmonella-Tainted Meat Is Not Considered Hazardous to Human Health
Another point of interest is the fact that Salmonella (unlike E. coli) is not considered a hazardous adulterant in meat, and processors are therefore not required to test for it. So, while rigorous cleaning and disinfection of processing equipment combined with testing for Salmonella could prevent many of these kinds of outbreaks, that simply isn’t happening.
The reason for this is because Salmonella is typically destroyed during cooking, so if the raw meat contains the pathogen, it’s not considered hazardous to human health.21
“Even if Salmonella-tainted product actually starts making people sick, the government has no legal recourse to force a company to recall it, or to punish a company for distributing it in the first place,” Fassler notes. Indeed, meat recalls for Salmonella contamination are voluntary, and not required by force of law.
This is in sharp contrast to E. coli, which is legally considered an adulterant and must be tested for. Meat found to be contaminated with E. coli is illegal to sell. As a result, food poisoning resulting from E.coli have dropped by 40 percent since 1994, the year it became an adulterant under the Federal Meat Inspection Act.22
All of these factors are reasons to buy meat certified grass fed by the American Grassfed Association(AGA). By virtue of how the animals are raised, AGA-certified meats are far less likely to be contaminated with hazardous pathogens in the first place. AGA grass fed certification is also the only label able to guarantee that the meat comes from animals that:
- Have been fed a 100 percent forage diet
- Have never been confined in a feedlot
- Have never received antibiotics or hormones
- Were born and raised on American family farms (a vast majority of the grass fed meats sold in grocery stores are imported, and without COOL labeling, there’s no telling where it came from or what standards were followed)
Two Pending Bills That Could Prevent Food Poisoning Outbreaks
Clearly, there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to food safety. At present, there are two pending bills that could help American grass fed farmers and lower the risk of food poisoning that need your support:
•The New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act,23,24 introduced by U.S. Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Angus King (I-ME). This bipartisan bill would allow meat and poultry that have been inspected through state meat and poultry Inspection programs to be sold across state lines.
At present, 27 states have inspection programs certified by FSIS that meet or exceed federal inspection standards, but federal law still does not permit products processed at these facilities to be sold across state lines.
“It makes no sense that a local farmer should have to jump through extra federal hoops to compete … if they have proven the quality of their product at a federally-approved state facility. This commonsense legislation gives our state’s agricultural sector more flexibility to expand its customer base …” King says.25
•The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act,26 which would authorize states to allow sale of custom-slaughtered meat in-state. At present, small livestock producers are forced to drive long distances to have their animals slaughtered at slaughterhouses that meet federal inspection standards.
Small, custom slaughterhouses are not permitted to sell any of their meat. These facilities can only be used by the owner of the animal and their family members, employees, nonpaying guests and customers who have purchased an entire animal prior to slaughter through a share program.
The PRIME Act would allow farmers to sell meat processed at these smaller slaughtering facilities. While critics warn the bill might endanger consumers by permitting the sale of uninspected meat, advocates say it would make sustainably raised local meat far more affordable, as transportation of animals to slaughter is a significant expense when there are so few slaughterhouses available.
USDA meat inspection also has far from a blemish-free history. Meanwhile, sustainably raised grass fed animals are far less prone to disease in the first place, and since the animals would be processed in extremely small batches — perhaps just a few animals per week — any risk of infection would be contained to a very limited number of individuals buying meat from that specific animal.