Sigh, it’s happened again. In a week of general shock and awe, no fewer than four news items stand out in terms of food safety and contamination control. The first is a statement that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a publication of the American College of Physicians, and the second, a proposed new ruling by the Trump administration concerning a change to livestock slaughter regulations. The third item relates to a petition filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit coalition of health professionals, and the fourth and final headline centers on contamination risk from egregious document falsification. So how are dueling medical organizations, new livestock regulation, and contamination control intertwined? Sadly, connecting the dots is really not that challenging. Let’s take a look…
In an article published in the editorials section of the Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM) on October 1, 2019, Aaron E. Carroll and Tiffany S. Doherty detail a series of meta-analyses of studies examining the health risks associated with red meat consumption. For many years now, doctors and other medical professionals have been warning against the risks of meat consumption in terms of its association with an increase in cancers, heart disease, obesity, and cardio-vascular disease. However, the result of the meta-analyses conducted by researchers at the University of Dalhousie and McMaster University, both in Canada, has apparently found that ‘cutting back has little impact on health [and that] that most adults should continue to eat their current levels of red and processed meat.’(1)
Co-facilitator of the study, Bradley C. Johnston, an epidemiologist, acknowledged that the findings ran contrary to the now largely accepted link between the consumption of red meat and poor health outcomes but stands firmly behind his conclusions. In an article published in Science Daily, he is quoted as follows:
‘This is not just another study on red and processed meat, but a series of high quality systematic reviews resulting in recommendations we think are far more transparent, robust and reliable. […] We focused exclusively on health outcomes, and did not consider animal welfare or environmental concerns when making our recommendations. We are however sympathetic to animal welfare and environmental concerns with a number of the guideline panel members having eliminated or reduced their personal red and processed meat intake for these reasons.’(2)
It is interesting to note Johnston’s last remark that a number of panel members have ‘eliminated or reduced their personal […] intake.’ It is even more interesting that Johnston’s research ‘was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, or ILSI, an industry trade group largely supported by agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical companies and whose members have included McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cargill, one of the largest beef processors in North America.’(3)
And of course, the backlash began almost immediately.
In a petition to the Federal Trade Commission, Physicians for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) protested the statement of findings, calling it not only inaccurate but also ‘a major disservice to public health.’(4) PCRM’s concern stems from what it believes to be a mischaracterization of meat as a safe product: ‘These misrepresentations are directly at odds with abundant scientific evidence demonstrating the potential ill health effects of red and processed meat and the benefits of reducing consumption of red and processed meat. […] AIM’s advertisement does far more than cause financial harm—it also promotes physical harm to those who follow its dangerous advice.’(5) It should also be noted that PCRM is not alone in its concerns: David L. Katz of Yale University Prevention Research Center and president of the True Health Initiative (THI), a global organization of health professionals, issued a statement that all reliable research demonstrates ‘adverse effects on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, of meat and processed meat consumption.’(6)
Of course, we shall have to wait to see how this tussle plays out both in the immediate term and also in gleaning more data on the long-term effects of meat consumption.
However, there are also short-term impacts of that meat on your plate. In fact, in addition to the salty, fatty toothsomeness of the burger lunch or steak dinner, you just may be consuming a generous serving of bacteria? How so?
Well, this brings us to our second and third items of important news within the realm of contamination control: new slaughterhouse regulation and E-coli.
In a recent change to the regulations, the United States Department of Agriculture ruled that fewer USDA food inspectors are required to be present in processing facilities which slaughter 500,000 animals per day. The oversight until now granted to the inspectors who should be considered as impartial agents unconnected with the processing facility will now be conferred instead upon company employees. And the aim of the regulatory overhaul is the simple increase in line speed ‘while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate,’ per USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.(7) This ‘innovation’ seems to include not only the loss of ‘impartial’ inspectors by around 40% but also the increase in potential risk to the meat-eating public. As Wenonah Hauter of the organization Food and Water Watch notes in an article in The Guardian: ‘The implementation of the rule will result in the fox guarding the henhouse […] With less government oversight […] big meat companies will have the freedom to inspect themselves and push towards their goal of increasing line speeds. There’s no doubt about it: faster line speeds plus less inspection equals more food contamination.’(8)
So a future in which fewer inspectors oversee the slaughter process and company employees have a vested interest in keeping lines moving at increasingly rapid speeds, an increased risk of contamination looks likely.
And the situation is already rather dire. Just last month, the owner and general manager of New England Meat Packing, LLC, Mehmet Beqiri, and the company’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) coordinator, Debbie Smith, both pleaded guilty to falsifying test results on carcasses of animals slaughtered at the New England plant. Per the HACCP protocol implemented at the facility, for every 300 animals slaughtered, one carcass swab should be performed to test for E. coli. However, for almost a year between late 2016 and mid 2017, Beqiri and Smith created a documentary trail suggesting that 52 carcass swabs had tested negative for E. Coli contamination. In reality, according to an article in Food Safety Magazine, ‘none of the 52 carcass swabs or samples had been submitted or tested by the identified laboratory, or any other laboratory. The 36 documents were fraudulently prepared using laboratory letterhead obtained from a previous testing that New England Meat Packing had conducted with that lab. During the investigation, Beqiri told USDA FSIS that samples were not collected and the documents were forged because ‘he did not correlate the potential impact on food safety with his sampling program and wanted to create the appearance that he was compliant with all USDA HACCP testing requirements.’’(9)
That last remark bears highlighting: he wanted to create the impression of compliance.
Furthermore, according to the same article, a ‘U.S. Attorney commented that Beqiri also said that he ignored regulations because he thought USDA’s meat testing requirements were an inconvenience and a nuisance. That U.S. Attorney said that “such reckless conduct seriously endangers public safety and will be prosecuted.” FSIS Administrator Carmen Rottenberg also commented on the case, saying that USDA “will not tolerate blatant disregard for food safety laws.”’(10)
So what does this kind of ‘blatant disregard’ mean for you and your dinner plans? One of the worst case scenarios is, of course, an unhealthy dose of E. coli so let’s just take a moment to review what exactly this pathogen is. Escherichia coli, or E. coli for short, is one of a group of carbapenem-resistant bacteria (CRE) which also includes Enterobacter areogenes, Enterobacter cloacae, and Klebsielle oxytoca. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CRE is a ‘nightmare bacteria,’ killing fully 50% of those it infects. And, as we noted in an earlier article, ‘How Reprocessed Duodenoscopes Represent a Challenge in Biomedical Contamination Control,’ symptoms of exposure run the gamut of urinary tract infections, blood or wound infections, and even pneumonia. In fact, a report by a panel at the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, ‘Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally: Final Report and Recommendations,’ projected that bacteria of these kinds could be killing ten million people each year by 2050.(11) In short, it is not a pathogen to take lightly.
With, according to UCSF Health, an estimated 85% of infections spread through food, how is it transmitted?(12) E. coli resides in the GI tract of animals whose intestines are often ripped apart during slaughter, resulting in fecal material contaminating the flesh.
Given that many of the more commonly consumed food products involve combining the meat of more than one animal – burgers, for example – one instance of fecal contamination can taint multiple items. And it doesn’t take a lot of the pathogen to cause illness: according to the Mayo Clinic ‘[u]nlike many other disease-causing bacteria, E. coli can cause an infection even if you ingest only small amounts.’(13) Perhaps it’s time to swear off those beef burgers in favor of their vegetarian alternative – after all, as we’ve chronicled in previous articles, plant-based analogs are becoming more widely embraced on an almost daily basis. Just a thought…
In considering this latest breach of trust, document falsification, and the resulting penalties – prison terms and fines – we are reminded of another case of contamination that centered around a custom facility in the north-east – the New England Compounding Center (NECC).
Almost three years ago, we wrote an article on the tainted drugs which took the lives of some 64 individuals across 20 states.(14) Although the New England Meat Packing LLC case – a company which touts custom slaughtering/processing services – has not (yet) resulted in loss of life, the potential was certainly there. And perhaps it remains a risk. In human psychology there is a concept known as the Dunning-Kruger effect which describes an inverse relationship in an individual’s mind between actual and perceived knowledge about a topic. In essence, the less a person knows about an issue, the more they think they know. Akin, one assumes, to characterizing oneself as ‘a very stable genius [and…] like, really smart,’ but we digress.(15) So when New England Meat Packing’s general manager Beqiri states that he correlate the potential impact of his actions on food safety and considered USDA regulations to be inconveniences to his business, we have to wonder how long it will be before something similar happens again. After all, Dunning-Kruger also states that ‘presenting an individual with information that opposes their beliefs could result in them holding on more tightly to those beliefs.’(16) A chilling thought indeed…
Does this new research change the way you view your dinner options? Are you still eating the same amount of meat as before? We’d love to know how news such as this influences the ways in which you make decisions when it comes to nutrition!