Meatpackers Wage War on E. coli


Monday, July 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


SCHUYLER, Neb. (AP) — Summer is here, and so is E. coli. At this time of the year as many as one of every four cattle being herded into Excel Corp.'s slaughterhouse and others like it may harbor the deadly human pathogen.

Before this plant's meat reaches consumers, the cattle and their carcasses will be put through a state-of-the-art system of scrubbing, washes, rinses and steam pasteurization designed to remove or destroy the bacteria.

But Excel food safety chief Dell Allen said some tainted meet is still bound to reach consumers. ``It's like a roll of the dice or a game of Russian roulette,'' he said.

Excel, the nation's second-biggest beef processor, has never had to recall a single pound of beef for possible E. coli contamination, but won't guarantee that its meat is free of the microbe.

``We can't,'' said Allen. ``Nobody can.''

With new research showing that Escherichia coli O157:H7 is 10 times more prevalent in the summer than previously thought — the bacteria proliferate in warm weather — the government is considering new controls on beef processors. The industry, meanwhile, is scrambling to come up with better sanitation and detection methods, along with ways to eradicate the microbe from cattle prior to slaughter.

The bacteria kill an estimated 60 Americans each year and sicken an estimated 73,000 more, mostly children or the elderly.

The microbe first appeared in cattle in the late 1970s and now shows up in entire herds. It was found in 28 percent of the cattle entering Midwest slaughterhouses last summer, according to an Agriculture Department study published this spring, and was even more prevalent inside the plants. Cattle can carry the bacteria on their hides as well as in their intestines.

About 43 percent of the skinned carcasses tested positive prior to being eviscerated — suggesting that the microbes were being spread within the facility. By the time the carcasses were cleaned and sent to a cooler to be readied for processing, most of the E. coli had been destroyed, but 1.8 percent of the sampled carcasses still tested positive.

USDA, which mandated testing of ground beef after an E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest seven years ago, is negotiating with packers on a new set of testing requirements to be announced this summer.

``The bottom line for the meatpacking industry is that they have to assume that the cattle they're getting are contaminated,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

``We have much better systems today to control E. coli ... but the cattle industry and the meatpackers are not required to monitor either the cattle or the carcasses for E. coli,'' she said.

The modern beef slaughterhouse is fundamentally similar to the place described by Upton Sinclair 95 years ago in ``The Jungle'' as a ``picture of human power wonderful to watch.'' The plants still rely on dozens of specialized, knife-wielding workers, often immigrants. The roar of the machinery, the odor of blood and raw flesh, the sight of cattle dangling in the air, blood spilling from their slashed throats, can still overwhelm a visitor.

But, unlike the plants Sinclair would have seen, the Excel plant's ``kill floor'' is a vast, brightly lit room as long as a football field and nearly as wide, to give the white-coated workers room to maneuver. A special circulation system is designed to keep dust and bacteria from spreading from freshly slain cattle to exposed carcasses.

Behind a wall at one corner of the floor, live cattle are killed one by one and then hoisted onto a conveyor that carries them through the plant's ``beauty parlor,'' where carwash-like scrubbers remove mud and bacteria-carrying manure from the hide.

From the beauty parlor, the cattle are bled and then skinned. The hide is removed piece by piece to avoid contaminating the exposed flesh; at one point, the tail is bagged in a plastic sheath to prevent it from flopping forward and contacting the skinned belly. The carcasses are then rinsed with an organic acid, eviscerated, steam-vacuumed, sawed in half, washed again, and finally scalded with steam before heading to the cooler.

This kill floor, which opened in 1998, is a vast improvement over the one it replaced, which was one-third the size and poorly ventilated, said Greg Harstick, a USDA meat inspector who has worked in several Midwest packing plants.

``The old plant is more the way most of them are now,'' he said.

USDA doesn't track the sanitation methods used by beef processors. But industry experts say the four largest packers that control 80 percent of the nation's cattle slaughter — Excel, IBP Inc., ConAgra Beef Co. and Farmland National Beef Packing Co. — use one or several of the processes employed here, including steam pasteurization.

Meatpackers ``are pulling out all the stops to find something we can do'' to rid the industry of the pathogen, said Mark Miller, a meat scientist at Texas Tech University.

``If you look at the incident rate of those bacteria in your soil or in the environment and then you look at the incident rate in pork or ground beef, we do a really good job,'' he said. ``You have a better chance of getting it from the lettuce in your back yard that you bring in and forget to wash really good.''

For more information about E. coli visit Federal Food Safety or The American Meat Institute