I had a cup of coffee recently with a dude who shall remain nameless, but has spent almost all, if not all, of his adult life in the beef business, trying to make products as safe and yet as affordable as they can be.
He expressed concern that the recent plethora of salmonella recalls may change the game entirely and raise havoc with his old industry.
He predicted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture / Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) will, at the very least, be forced to declare salmonella species that are pathogenic in humans to be an adulterant in meat and poultry products when found in governmental test samples.
That is a game changer.
The announcement Dec. 4 that JBS Tolleson Inc. was the third time in two months expanding its recall for ground beef and other non-intact beef contaminated with Salmonella Newport caused me to reflect on the dude’s comments and do a little research.
But before I get to the results of my efforts, I need to point out that the JBS recall now totals over 12 million pounds, or 6,000 tons. This makes the recall by far the largest beef recall in U.S. history for salmonella.
The foodborne illness outbreak associated with this recall has now sickened 250 people since August.
USDA/FSIS has been monitoring salmonella rates on the carcasses of whole broiler chickens for what seems like ever. But it was just in recent years that FSIS tested chicken parts, comminuted chicken in FSIS-speak, and came up with some very disturbing numbers.
As a result of that testing, performance standards for chicken parts were set. Just the first 12 months of data for 826 chicken and turkey plants were posted.
Chicken parts can test up to 25% positive for salmonella and still be in compliance; turkeys can come in at 13.5%. The Yuck factor appears pretty high to the average consumer.
In the initial year of testing, 15% of plants were in Category 3; that is they failed to come in at or below the new standards. Even yuckier, the Jenny O plant with the turkey recall in November is in the Category 3 list.
Does anyone besides me think that consumer groups and some vocal politicians, based on these revelations, are going to call for action; and that the action requested will be to declare some pathogenic strains of salmonella to be adulterants?
FSIS more recently began testing for salmonella in red meats.
The latest results are in; 2.79% positive in ground beef and 1.56% in trim.
I went to the FSIS recall page and I think I understand the guy’s concern about recent developments.
There have been 13 recalls in just two months since Oct. 4, for meat and/or poultry products containing Salmonella. Some were RTE products and some were raw products.
There was only one recall between Jan. 1 and Oct. 4 and that was SMI Holding for 484,000 lb. of beef on March 16.
Some of the larger recalls since Oct. 4 include the three JBS announcements along with the Jennie-O recall of 92,000 lb. of ground turkey contaminated with salmonella reading on Nov. 15, just in time for a Thanksgiving scare.
Some others were Ruiz’s recall on Oct. 19 for salmonella and listeria contaminated taquitos, 2.5 million lb. and Buddy’s Kitchen also on Oct. 19 for 212,000 lb. of product containing meat and chicken.
Bakkavor Foods also had a sizeable recall of 800,000 lb. Oct. 21.
So what has suddenly changed?
Why is FSIS suddenly treating virulent strains of salmonella as adulterants when it has a long history of assuming the position that salmonella was not an adulterant based on the decision on Dec. 1, 2001, by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that FSIS could not shut down Supreme Beef even though its salmonella contamination rate was 47%?
Of course there was the precedent setting recall involving Foster Farms raw chicken in 2015 when Salmonella Heidelberg was identified as the pathogen involved in a large scale outbreak and linked to Foster Farms products.
But other precedents are few and far between; the last two months have been a major sea change in philosophy it appears.
I do not have the inside knowledge to know what is happening, but if I were in the meat or poultry industry I would be very nervous.
Of course there are those who respond by saying there is no problem here, after all “what difference does it make, the producers have insurance against the cost of recalls.”
This year there has been well over 17 million pounds of meat and poultry products recalled for salmonella contamination, almost all of that just in the last two months. That is a lot of wasted meat and dollars. Insurance companies did not count on this development and rates will increase by dramatic numbers for next year.
I know; I live in an area of Colorado recently hit by several hailstorms. My home owner’s insurance increased nearly 20% even though my house was not hit. The industry will pay a price for October and November, good and bad actors will see increased rates, and they will pass it on to us, their consumers.
Like the industry’s collective response to Jack in the Box, there had better be an equally successful change in how business is done to control salmonella.