What every TV producer should know about the meat industry but was either too busy or too biased to ask ...

It seems we’re now living at a time when TV producers and journalists can expect nothing but accolades for their biased stories trashing the meat industry.

The hundreds of thousands of men and women who work in the industry have every right to be angry with so-called TV documentaries featuring little more than the cleverly-edited rhetoric of high-profile critics.

This page has been provided to help separate the facts from the myths.

What was the Supreme Beef case all about?

How has the meat industry changed since the 1960s?

There was a time when every major city had a 'butchertown', and livestock were trucked in for processing. Today, meat processors have left the large cities and moved to where the livestock are in rural America. At that time, there were forty meat slaughterers in Los Angeles; today, there are two. Famous stockyards in Chicago, Denver, Omaha, St. Paul, and elsewhere flourished. Today, they are closed. In their place, very large livestock processing plants are located in smaller communities in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Texas and Colorado. The meat is chilled and vacuum packed in large pieces and sent in boxes to companies that distribute it to restaurants and retailers who, in turn, cut it into steaks and roasts. Technology exists today that meat can be cut into retail-size quantities and packaged for direct placement in the retail case. Moving the location of meat processing back to areas where the animals are raised means safer meat at competitive prices for consumers.

How have technological innovations changed the industry?

Technological innovations in the meat industry have made it possible for us to make meat safer and less expensive for American consumers. Vacuum packaging technology developed in the 1970s enables us to assure both safe handling and better freshness for consumers. Better refrigeration technology enables us to keep meat cold all along the process right down to the restaurant and the kitchen. Technological innovations in slaughter plants reduce undesirable surface bacteria while meat is being processed. These are just a few of the technological innovations that have made our industry more efficient, so that we can pass on savings and safe meat to the consumer.

How much money has been spent on food safety by the meat industry?

Untold millions have been spent by the meat industry on food safety! Just training personnel to meet today's requirements costs at least $1000 plus. One large company with 15 plants and ten management personnel per plant, can invest $150,000 per year in training. Equipment costs run into millions, with some of the newer pasteurization equipment costing a $1 million per shot. The antimicrobials that are applied to reduce bad bacteria will cost over $100,000 annually. Laboratory testing for bad bacteria must be done outside a plant and can cost an average of $30 test, multiplied by literally hundreds of thousands of tests, runs into millions of dollars. The meat industry spends millions of dollars more per year on food safety today than it did ten years or even five years ago.

What has the industry done to assure food safety?

The industry has worked with the USDA and made huge improvements in food safety. To name a few: Vacuum packaging, refrigeration improvements, improved sanitation, steam vacuums, steam pasteurization and hot water pasteurization to remove undesirable bacteria, antimicrobial rinses, in-plant laboratories for micro testing, and hiring expert scientists, food microbiologists and training its personnel. Food safety is in the best interests of the meat industry from an economic standpoint. Companies that do not meet this responsibility don't survive.

What does boxed beef mean to the industry?

Boxed beef simply means that carcasses have been cut into smaller parts with standard identities, sealed in vacuum bags and placed in boxes that are then sold to retailers and restaurants. Vacuum packaging technology and improved refrigeration have made boxed beef possible. 80% of all beef produced and sold in the U.S. is now sold as boxed beef. Boxed beef provides fresher, safer product to all consumers.

What does case ready beef mean to the industry?

Case ready means that the product leaving a large processing facility is ready to be placed into a retail meat case and sold. Case ready is a relatively new product presentation that is increasingly being used in today's retail grocery world. Consumers can recognize case ready product because it will bear the USDA mark of inspection that tells them where it was produced. It benefits consumers because it is less expensive to put up case ready product earlier in the chain of distribution.

What are the important elements of the HACCP regulations? Are they working?

HACCP regulations require each plant develop a plan to assure food safety practices and be able to document their effectiveness. Many firms in the industry were already utilizing HACCP principles and welcomed USDA adopting HACCP regulations. USDA regulations work very well, but as with any government regulation, it takes time to get everyone on the same page! Inspectors are adapting. Initially inspectors at the plant level did not receive HACCP training, but this is improving. While inspectors’ work has changed, the law and the regulations continue to give them clear authority to act in cases of sanitation failures, misbranding and product adulteration. Industry implemented Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures and HACCP in cooperation with FSIS inspectors. This has resulted in products with improved microbiological profiles since the adoption of the USDA HACCP regulations in 1996.

How safe is the beef we buy in our supermarkets and restaurants today? What advice do you have for the consumer about choosing meat and eating meat safely?

Meat in supermarkets today is among the safest in the world, produced under regulatory oversight by USDA. Processing practices are designed to prevent hazards from developing during meat processing and distribution and to measure the effectiveness of the sanitary dressing and processing procedures at critical points. The system, which is overseen by the USDA's regulatory scheme, is known as: Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point or HACCP. The effectiveness of the system is confirmed by data from the Centers for Disease Control indicating a decline in food borne illness attributable to meat products. Americans should know that their meat is safe as long as it is handled and prepared in a safe manner. Food preparers do their part in maintaining the safety of the meat they consume by maintaining the cold chain and then cooking it thoroughly before serving.

Does the modern efficiency of the U.S. meat industry pose potential health risks for livestock during raising? What are the human health dangers of the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock?

Any group, whether it's children at school or livestock, can spread contagious diseases. Because of this, large scale immunizations are practiced in human medicine. Similarly, health practices in large commercial feedyards are commonly practiced on all incoming cattle. They are reviewed by personnel daily and any sick animals are immediately separated, placed in a hospital pen, treated until well and then returned. Livestock intended for the food supply are inspected by USDA before they enter processing, and more intensively by USDA during processing. This is a requirement of the law and remains unchanged by the HACCP regulations. The proportion of livestock that are denied entry to the food supply by USDA is at historic lows, indicating strong animal health programs nationwide.

Are slaughterhouse conditions safe for workers under tremendous pressure to slaughter cattle at many times the rate of other countries?

Working on a meat slaughter line is tough work, but NMA has worked with the industry to make it a lot easier than it once was. We've added many mechanical devices that ease the heavy lifting work. Workers are trained to focus their job activities in ways to make tough work less demanding. USDA inspectors are on the slaughtering line to perform inspection tasks working alongside company workers that are performing sanitary dressing activities. Routine work relief breaks are built into the system, and there are limits on shift length. Safety standards, including non-slip surfaces, protective head, hand and footwear are provided, and where appropriate protective aprons are designed to prevent workers from knife injuries. Again, it's hard work by comparison with flipping hamburgers, but many of today's industry leaders started at or near the bottom and have worked hard to make improvements in the line job activities.

What leads to a recall like the one that took place in the summer of 2001 in which 500,000 pounds of beef to be recalled from 17 states because it was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7?

A single 325 gram sample of ground beef can trigger a recall of an entire day's production. The 500,000 pound recall last summer was such an instance. The problem with the present recall process is that, by the time USDA reports a positive result, the product is in distribution and much will already have been consumed. Very little will actually be recovered, and so long as it is thoroughly cooked it will not be able to cause illness. People at risk are advised to look for ground beef that has been irradiated and everyone is encouraged to cook meat thoroughly and prevent any cross-contamination in the kitchen.

Are meat products safe?

Like all perishable products, including poultry, fish, dairy and cheeses, meat is perishable and needs to be kept cold and its preparation needs to be done carefully, with great emphasis on sanitation and thorough cooking. Americans are buying and eating ground beef safely every day in this country. Consumers should have confidence that the industry is committed to producing the safest product possible, and the USDA inspection oversight confirms this. Meat today is safer than it has ever been - safe meat is just good business.

What was the Supreme Beef case all about?

The Supreme Beef case was a court challenge by a company when they were forced to close by USDA based on a bacterial performance standard on meat they had purchased from other USDA inspected plants where it had been passed by USDA inspectors. USDA claimed that the Supreme plant was insanitary because they failed the Salmonella performance standard, but USDA’s chief meat inspector told the Judge that the plant was meeting sanitary standards. Daily inspection by USDA inspectors showed that it met its responsibilities for sanitation. The Salmonella performance standard used by USDA was flawed. It does not measure sanitation of a facility.

What was the position of Supreme Beef in the dispute?

Supreme Beef argued that the USDA closed its plant illegally, and the judge agreed. First, Supreme had not violated the law. Second, the USDA testing was flawed. And third, Supreme's plant was not insanitary. In fact, even the USDA’s cheif meat inspector testified that the plant was not unsanitary. USDA took the action against Supreme without the authority of the law, and the Court took proper action to restore USDA inspection. The Court agreed with Supreme, stating that the USDA had acted improperly in closing its plant, and the Appeals Court reaffirmed that decision 22 months later.

What was the position of the USDA in the case?

USDA claimed it had the authority to close establishments based solely on microbiological test results that did not measure that plant’s performance. USDA admitted that Supreme had no sanitation problems, that Supreme's products were not adulterated with Salmonella, and that the source of the Salmonella was outside of Supreme's facility. USDA sought to punish Supreme solely on the basis that it failed a microbiological test that did not measure either plant sanitation or product adulteration.

What has been the role of the NMA in the court battle?

NMA's role was to represent the industry and its position in this case. NMA and four other groups asked and were granted friend of the court, or amicus, status supporting the position of Supreme. Our becoming ‘friends of the court,’ or amici, meant we could speak for the meat industry rather than as a single company. The industry was very concerned about USDA abusing its legal authority. Removing inspection from a facility, and thereby closing them down, for reasons outside of the legal authority were of great concern to many, many firms. This was a huge concern to the other companies that grind meat and they wanted that fact known in the court. After USDA appealed the lower court decision and Supreme went out of business, NMA asked to be and was permitted to be an intervenor, which meant that we were a plaintiff in the lawsuit and the beneficiary on behalf of the industry, of the decision that came out of the Appeals Court.

Is NMA opposed to regulations that would help catch the violators?

NMA supports regulations that are based on science and will improve food safety. This regulation did not meet these goals because it did not measure conditions at the plant. NMA provides input on developing regulations that help improve food safety. It supported and continues to support HACCP regulations. NMA supports regulations that will help make all food safer for consumers.

Why shouldn't grinders be forced to test meat that comes into their plants?

End product testing at a plant that merely grinds USDA-inspected product bought from other plants does not measure pathogen reduction at the grinding facility. The Supreme Beef decision will require USDA to discuss with interested parties, including the industry, how to achieve meaningful pathogen reduction throughout the system.

The pathogen reduction technology implemented by the industry has made meat safer for consumers; performance standards that do not measure performance do not make product safer for consumers. Performance standards should only be implemented where they actually measure performance.

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