The Billings Gazette reported today that Montana senator Jon Tester plans to introduce a bill in Congress to Modify the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Interestingly, Senator Tester is not new to the beef slaughtering business. He operated a small-scale slaughtering establishment on his family farm–he took over his father’s business–until he began his first senate run. According to the Gazette, at issue in Senator Tester’s bill:
is the way the U.S. government tracks E. coli- and salmonella-contaminated meat in cases of food-borne illness.
Investigations currently stop at butcher shops and packing plants, but Tester said the real contamination takes place in slaughterhouses, where animals are cut open and fecal bacteria from intestines and hides can come in contact with meat. For decades, rules for required testing have made it impossible to trace contamination back to slaughterhouses.
Tester said he will introduce a bill today to amend the Meat Inspection Act, changing those rules and get to the source of a food illnesses like E. coli. Roughly 73,000 Americans are sickened annually by E. coli, 2,000 are hospitalized and 60 are killed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical costs associated with E. coli exceed $405 million a year.
E. coli O157:H7 is a major public health concern. It maims people, kills people, and causes millions of dollars in medical costs every single year in this country. A lucky victim typically is sick enough to require professional medical help.
Senator Tester’s bill may or may not be a good part of the solution. I have not yet seen the bill, but anything that increases scrutiny of slaughterhouse practices must be considered a positive step. 5.7 million pounds of beef products have been recalled this year alone, and it’s not even Easter. But the reality is that better inspection and traceback alone will not fix the problems with our beef supply.
Another potential solution is irradiation, which is a process of exposing food products to electromagnetic energy, thus providing a "kill step" (i.e. a step taken to kill bacteria prior to consumption) for the meat. Despite its unfortunate name, which conjures images of Chernobyl quicker than it does safe food, irradiation affects neither the taste nor the healthful quality of meat, or any food for that matter. In an interview with Themeatingplace.com, Marler Clark partner Denis Stearns said:
“We’ve talked a lot about irradiation at the firm,” Stearns told The Meatingplace.com “We expect to see more irradiated food being served to more vulnerable segments of the population. I wouldn’t be surprised—if it hasn’t already occurred—to start seeing hospitals and school lunch programs using irradiated meat. People [there] are typically much more susceptible to food-borne illness.”
Notably, some meat companies, such as Omaha Steaks, have already taken steps to sell only irradiated product. More companies need to take this step, and the federal government needs to consider requiring irradiation of all meat.