HOW FRONTLINE HANDLED “MODERN MEAT”
Doug Hamilton and Steve Johnson, producers of Frontline’s “Modern Meat,” scheduled to air on National Public Television on Thursday, April 18, visited with NMA Executive Director Rosemary Mucklow and Director of Communications Jeremy Russell in January 2002.
The two producers spent nearly three hours with Mucklow and Russell on background discussions about what had changed in the meat industry over the last thirty years. One significant issue they asked about was the emergence of boxed beef. Rosemary explained that this was a product of vacuum packaging of very large pieces of meat which allowed it to be harvested close to the source of livestock, and its freshness to be assured as it was transported to the large metropolitan areas. The vacuum packaging technology thus drove production and marketing efficiencies evidenced between 1970 and the present time, and the consequent closing of many smaller slaughtering plants in metropolitan cities that had serviced those communities previously.
They also discussed the technologies that have been developed to hugely improve sanitary dressing activities in slaughter plants that have been implemented following the Pacific Northwest foodborne illnesses in 1993, and the on-going efforts of the meat industry to research and then apply new pathogen reduction technologies.
The storyline for “Modern Meat” appeared very differently when Frontline began to advertise its show. As it was publicized on the Frontline’s website in the middle of March, it appears to be just another one-sided attack on the meat industry. This time it’s not a network effort but rather done by public television which is funded in large part by direct tax dollars and the tax-exempt contributions from large corporations. In the advance description of the show, most of the evidence to support the storyline comes from tax-exempt critics, disgruntled USDA employees, and journalists that sell books denigrating the industry. The exclusivity of such a lineup hardly reflects balanced journalism.
Due to a variety of factors, NMA was forced to reschedule a March 19 on camera interview with the Frontline producers. In a subsequent telephone call and the correspondence that followed they told us that they had run out of time.
However, on Tuesday, April 16, just 48 hours before Frontline’s meat episode airs, the producers held a lengthy telephone conversation with Steve Spiritas of Supreme Beef Processors. They claimed it had been hard to find him (he’s listed in the Dallas telephone directory and they could have easily have contacted him through NMA, but never asked). Spiritas told them that the media had misrepresented the facts about his business and that thousands of people, including employees, vendors, livestock producers and others, had been seriously damaged by USDA’s action against this company. He told them about the unfairness of a testing program which withholds test results until the end of a 11-week sample set, how he had tried to work out a resolution with government officials but was left with no alternative but to seek a judicial remedy when USDA closed his business. He explained that the company did not have a sanitation problem, and in response to whether he agreed that the lawsuit he filed had killed HACCP, he gave an emphatic no, stating that the Salmonella performance standard was just a single component and that, by taking its action against his company, USDA had ignored many other elements of the highly effective HACCP program at his company. NMA has long supported performance standards, such as for the cooking of ready-to-eat products, that measure actual performance; USDA’s initial effort for uncooked ground beef was thrown out by the court because it failed to measure performance.
In preparation for an on air interview, NMA developed some answers to questions that might have been posed. We’re pleased to share these here.
We are also able provide some photographs provided by beef packers showing the kinds of technological interventions that are used by the industry in its substantial efforts to reduce pathogens.
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National Meat Association