City Commons Club
Rosemary Mucklow
Executive Director
National Meat Association
September 12, 2003
Making Meat Safe for Americans

Good Afternoon!

It’s a great pleasure to speak to you about meat safety – after you’ve eaten your excellent lunch! I hope you enjoyed it – prepared by our great chef Lars Seebohm. You demonstrated your confidence in the safety of the food you consume by eating your lunch here today. Millions of Americans rely on food preparers across this country every day to serve up safe food. Most of you probably judge the safety of the meat that you buy with how it looks in the package at the retail store, or the service you get from the counter butcher, or you leave it to the Chef and the kitchen staff at the restaurant or fast food counter. I’m here today to give you some of the inside story of what the industry that I represent is doing to make meat safe for you and your family!

As a little girl growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, I played with my friends in the field outside the local slaughterhouse, generally when there were no cows there! In those days, there were slaughter houses in most major cities. Those in places like Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and even San Francisco and Berkeley were legendary. In fact, just a hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair wrote a book about the social conditions in which people toiled in Chicago slaughterhouses, and it triggered the first mandatory inspection program for meat in the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. That law was substantially updated in legislation signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, triggered by scandalous activity in meat in New York. 

The conversion of livestock into meat that is fit to enter the food chain is serious business. The law, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, has criminal penalties for those who sell adulterated meat or who abuse the officials responsible for the government oversight. There is a companion law for the inspection of poultry. Further, the law provides for what is known as “continuous inspection.” This means that federal inspectors visit meat and poultry plants every day to perform inspection tasks. This differs substantially from the law administered by the Food & Drug Administration for all other foods which is what we call “compliance based.” And conducted by random inspection visits. 

Within USDA, the Food Safety & Inspection Service, with approximately 8000 employees, is responsible for meat, poultry and egg inspection. A very important part of the federal authority is that all livestock are subject to ante and post mortem inspection by a USDA inspector. This means, in practical terms, that a government official looks at the livestock before they enter the slaughterhouse and identifies any that he thinks, in his or her professional judgment, are not fit for the food supply. The inspector may, at this time, identify livestock as “suspect” and they are tagged for further inspection to decide their condition at the post mortem examination. These inspection steps are still as important today as they have always been. They are an assurance to consumers that the meat they eat comes from healthy livestock.

Companion legislation, administered by the same agency, the Humane Slaughter Act, ensures that the way in which livestock are slaughtered is humane. The law also provides that livestock entering the food supply must die from bleeding, and not from any other causes. Thus, livestock are rendered brain dead by a stunning system and a skillful butcher inserts his knife into the jugular vein in the neck to actually cause death. 

I have visited many slaughterhouses, and observed the process by which we convert livestock into meat. It’s tough work, made easier today with automation, but it’s still tough work. A stamp of approval by the USDA is affixed to carcasses after they have undergone all steps in a very complcated disassembly process. Remember, in the case of bovines, we begin with an animal that weighs over 1000 pounds, and its dressed weight when it leaves the kill floor will be anywhere from 550 to 800 pounds. 

New technology in the last ten years allows us to wash the carcass with antimicrobial rinses to reduce microorganisms, especially the deadly ones like E. coli O157:H7. Many of the larger slaughterhouses have installed a cabinet that either shrouds the finished carcass in steam or 180 degree water, both of which destroy invisible microorganisms on contact. 

The technology to chill carcasses has changed little over the years. If we chill too fast, we end up with a chilled crust on the outside, and the heat is still in the interior muscles and will cause the meat to go sour. Thus, we need to chill slowly, and it takes anywhere from 24 to 36 hours to chill down those large sides of beef. 

After chilling, the carcasses may be offered for grading which is a quality factor, and a service paid for by the packer and performed by another USDA agency: the Agricultural Marketing Service. Based on published criteria, including the evidence of “marbling” the little white flecks of fat in the meat face between the 12th and 13th rib, the animal may grade Prime, Choice, Select, Canner or Cutter. Most of the beef you eat will be the Choice grade. 

After grading, the quarters move to a fabrication room where butchers trim fat and cut the large pieces into primal or sub-primal cuts. My favorite is the market rib eye, with the rib bones left in for my neighbor’s dogs! Major technology first introduced in the 1970s contributed to huge change in the structure of the industry. The technology, developed by Cryovac Division of W.R.Grace, allowed for quite large pieces of meat weighing 20 pounds or so to be placed in a poly film bag and have the air sucked out of it and sealed. This vacuum sealing of meat hugely extended the shelf life of a product which otherwise has a short shelf life of freshness. Above all other contributing changes, vacuum packaging of large pieces of meat underwrote the structural changes in the meat industry by allowing the development of very large, efficient manufacturing plants in locations near to where the animals were raised, and away from the central markets in big cities. Thus, we saw the demise of slaughter plants, even here in Berkeley, and the build-up of facilities in the midwest states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Texas. 

There are a few exceptions. Here in California, we now have about four quite large plants: the very successful Harris Ranch Beef, a privately held company that is unique in that it controls the feeding of the livestock it slaughters; Brawley Beef in Southern California, a brand new facility just opened a couple of years ago, Fresno Meat in Fresno which specializes in slaughtering cows which are a by-product of the very large California dairy industry, and Central Valley Packing in Hanford which does the same thing. Kiran Kernellu, NMA’s Communications Manager who is here with me today, visited Los Angeles last month with some other NMA staff and toured Farmer John that makes the famous Dodger Dogs; you may know them for their excellent bacon and hams. They are a large family-owned company with over 1000 employees slaughtering hogs and processing pork. Kiran and my staff also visited a nearby company, United Food Group. If you shop at Albertson’s, you’ll know Moran Ground Beef, one of the brands made by United Food Group.

The outbreak of illness and death from undercooked hamburgers in the Pacific Northwest in 1993 was a watershed event for the meat industry. Just as there was a trigger event for the 1906 and 1967 legislation, so the 1993 Northwest outbreak impacted the industry in manifold ways. It shifted the focus of regulators to the microbiological safety of meat. The Administrator of the FSIS had actually initiated the development of baseline microbiological studies of different classes of products before the outbreak. The outbreak occurred in the first month of a new Administration in Washington, and there was some politicizing of the issue of food safety. Just how safe your meat is is a hot political football for special interest groups. 

The new political leaders at USDA in 1993 were determined to pursue a paradigm shift in regulatory practices, even though there were no changes to the underlying statute. The focus was to implement HACCP – Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point systems in every plant that produced meat and poultry – about 10,000 plants under federal and “equal to” state inspection. After much debate in formal rulemaking, a final regulation was issued on July 25, 1996 mandating a HACCP program and also mandating the development of each licensed facility of written Sanitation Standard Operating Processes (SSOPs). HACCP was developed by a man working for Pillsbury about 30 years ago who was charged with making food as safe as possible for our first astronauts. Foodborne illness in space would not be desirable for a number of reasons! Howard Baumann is known as the father of this system which is based on identifying possible hazards and developing measurable steps to control them. One of the simplest controls is cooking products that will be consumed without further cooking to ensure than pathogenic microorganisms are destroyed. Along with the basic HACCP system, performance standards were part of the rule. Some were subsequently subject to litigation. In fact, USDA was twice over-ruled by the Courts in what might be considered its over-reach beyond its statutory authority. We can discuss these issues if you want to know more. 

Today, I’m here to tell you that the raw meat that you buy is safer than it ever was. However, it continues to be very very important that consumers, who are responsible for the final food preparation step in their homes, ensure that they do not cross contaminate meat and meat juices with other foods that will not be cooked. It is simply not possible, with today’s technology, to guarantee raw meat free of pathogens. It is less and less likely that such pathogens are in or on the meat, but cooking to 160 degrees is critical for such meat as hamburgers where the outside surfaces of the carcass are comingled with the inside. Plan to still enjoy your steak and roast beef rare or medium rare! 

Finally, I brought along your place mats today. We have developed these and they describe the HACCP system in the most elementary terms. We are happy to make them up for you to take to your children’s or grandchildren’s school if they would use them. Probably you have been to places like Denny’s where they bring a jar of crayons to the table and the kids color their mats. If you’d like some mats, either for when you have the kids visit your house, or if you persuade their school to use them, just let us know and we’ll make them up for you. We can even add a school logo, or whatever you may choose that is appropriate and tasteful. 

I’ve served in my current position, and predecessor organizations, for over 40 years. I am at my desk every morning at 6:30 a.m. and I have a passion for what I do. I have no plans for retirement. I’m here to answer any questions you may have, and I really appreciate your inviting me. And, by the way, I am also a Director of the Berkeley City Club and I’d like to thank your Club for your support. I’ve brought along some BCC postcards that you may like to use to investigate membership if you are not already a member, or if you know someone that would like membership information. 

Thanks again.

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