Recently, certain sectors have argued that the incidence of E. coli O157:H7, and other shiga-toxin producing strains of E. coli, in ground beef has dropped precipitously, and that our food safety system is, as a result, working very well.  At Marler Clark, over the last several years—in fact, beginning with the infamous Dole baby spinach outbreak in September 2006—fully 90% of the people we have represented have been victims of severe E. coli O157:H7 infections, sometimes resulting in hemolytic uremic syndrome; and aside from approximately 100 spinach victims, 95% of these folks were sickened by contaminated ground beef.  In fact, with the recent, virtually simultaneous recalls of about 546,000 pounds of ground beef by South Shore Meats and Fairbank Farms, 45,000,000 pounds of ground beef have been recalled in the last two years.  These statistics sure don’t jibe well with any optimism about our food safety system, as a whole, or ground beef more specifically. 

As recently as the beginning of 2007, the beef industry touted that the incidence of E. coli O157 in meat had plummeted since the 1990s, dropping nearly 80%. The rate of actual illnesses in people, it was said, was also way down. It appeared, by both statistics and the profiles of our clients at Marler Clark, that the meat industry had indeed cleaned up its act—that big beef finally would put Bill Marler’s firm in Seattle out of business.

If the first several years of this millennium showed progress by the beef industry, 2007, 2008, and 2009 are years that it would rather forget. Beef companies recalled over twenty-nine million pounds of meat in 2007. 2008 saw at least sixteen recalls of beef products, totaling at least 2,361,295 pounds of meat. And to date in 2009, beef companies have recalled close to two million pounds of product, if not more. True enough, these are just bare numbers—courtesy of the USDA website—but a simple contrast with the first five or six years of this millennium are illustrative. Progress? Optimism? I don’t see it.

Ultimately, these numbers may serve the opposing perspective directly: more recalls may mean more testing, but it does not necessarily mean more illness. To that, all we can really say is that, well, we’ve sure as heck seen a lot more sick people in the last three years than we did the six previous ones. Indeed, there are more than a few families that I can think of around the country who would be shocked—probably even dismayed—to learn that our “food-safety system is working, even though the number of recalls is rising.”

Let me make a different assessment; perhaps it will be a better platform from which to build a national, and international, food-safety system that’s more in keeping with what consumers expect: no, we are not making good enough progress; and no, I don’t agree that the increased number of food recalls (ground beef in particular) is just because of better testing, and more surveillance within the public health community. Take it for what you will, but we have represented more victims of foodborne disease in the last three years alone that we did in the entirety of this firm’s first decade of existence.