What can we learn from the Hallmark/Westland recall?

What can we learn from the Hallmark/Westland recall?

The news media wires are ablaze following the current 143 million lb recall. The timing could not be worse, realizing the chronic E.coli recalls and outbreaks which occurred throughout 2007. Filing charges against the noncompliant employees at Hallmark, and withdrawing inspectors from the plant merely place a band aid on a meat inspection system which is in dire need of serious transplant surgery. We are simply reaping the bounteous harvest resulting from the seeds sown by faulty HACCP protocol which has ruled the roost for the last nine years. In order to root out the bad seeds, we need to return to the grass roots of FSIS’ reasoning for mandating HACCP, perform a mid-stream evaluation, and discuss alternative solutions.

USDA/FSIS spokespeople participated in public training sessions for industry personnel in 1995, describing the goals the agency envisioned for the meat industry subsequent to the Jack In The Box debacle. The ugly JITB outbreak constituted justification for a radical departure in traditional agency inspection policies, and USDA embraced HACCP as the panacea for addressing modern-day pathogens. The agency had a gargantuan marketing task on their hands: convince the entire industry it must voluntarily embrace and implement a new meat production system. No easy task. FSIS authored numerous HACCP foundational beliefs and dangled them in front of the industry; delectable morsels intended to entice the industry to support the agency’s newest regimen. FSIS statements included the following:

1. HACCP is superior to the previous meat inspection system, because HACCP is “science based”. When pressed on this issue, the agency stated that the foundation for a science-based system is microbiological testing, which would be a major component of HACCP. USDA stated that both the agency and plants would commence collecting a substantial number of microbial tests. The agency admitted that its previous system had been “organoleptic” in nature, meaning sensory, such as sight, smell, touch, etc. The previous system began to be characterized as “poke and sniff”, which allegedly could not detect the E.coli causing the JITB outbreak. Much attention was given to the fact that E.coli was a relatively new pathogen, and that bacteria do mutate and evolve, requiring a microbial testing program to detect these invisible bacteria.

2. Each plant must write its own HACCP Plan. Since no two plants are identical, no two HACCP Plans would be identical either. And, the agency publicly stated that it could not tell plants how to write their HACCP Plans.

3. Under HACCP, USDA would disband its previous command & control authority.

4. Under HACCP, USDA would no longer police the plants. Plants must now police themselves.

5. Under the HACCP umbrella, USDA’s role would be “Hands Off”.

The beleaguered industry swallowed these agency promises hook, line and sinker. The ability to self-police in this newly-deregulated industry constituted sugar plums dancing in our heads. Seeds were being sown.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act was enacted in 1906, largely because the pre-1906 slaughter houses abjectly failed in policing themselves. In less than 100 years, USDA unilaterally and voluntarily relinquished much of its authority while intent on repeating history. But think of the beauty of HACCP in the eyes of FSIS: whenever outbreaks and recalls occur, how can the agency be even partially liable for the presence of bad meat which it had never inspected? HACCP allowed the agency to slide into semi-retirement, while simultaneously shielding it from accountability. The official USDA Mark of Inspection states “USDA Inspected and Passed Est. # xxxx”. Passed indeed, but frequently not inspected.

On January 26, 1998, the largest plants implemented HACCP. On February 1, 1998, FSIS issued Directive 10,010.1 which exempted qualified large plants from agency-conducted microbiological testing. In a mere six days, FSIS rewarded the large slaughter plants for their voluntary implementation of deregulation. This gift benefited more than just the big packers. Since the agency was now relieved of its duty to test, it would no longer experience any lab positives, sparing it from the uncomfortable task of bringing enforcement actions against the big slaughter facilities which had been promised the agency would embrace a “Hands Off” status, gratis HACCP.

FSIS declared E.coli to be an adulterant, in ground beef as well as in boneless trimmings. However, “science” prohibited classifying E.coli as being an adulterant when found as surface contamination on boxed beef cuts. Therefore, when boxed beef contaminated with E.coli subsequently caused e.coli sicknesses, the slaughter plants were not liable for the sicknesses. The justification for this decision is that the slaughter plants state that the boxed beef “is not intended for grinding”. The agency whole-heartedly endorsed this claim by the large slaughter facilities, and exposed their willingness to bury its head in the sand. Further processors have always had the right to grind trimmings emanating from processing of boxed beef, and in fact it is a financial necessity. Furthermore, realizing that the trimmings emanated from carcasses whose wholesomeness had been validated by HACCP protocol at the slaughter plants, boxed beef produced from those wholesome carcasses must also be wholesome, as attested to by the official USDA Mark of Inspection on the incoming boxes of boxed beef.

While FSIS has provided lip service to and endorsement of traceback policies in numerous agency publications, agency policies have been written to prevent tracebacks to the slaughterhouse origins of contamination from enteric bacteria. For example, when FSIS inspectors collect samples of ground beef for microbial testing at USDA labs, the inspectors are prohibited from documenting the origin of the meat being tested at the time of sample collection. Instead, if the test comes back positive for E.coli four or more days later, only then does the inspector collect evidence from plant management. By this time, the trail of evidence has turned cold, and plant management can provide any “evidence” it desires. The agency lacks the ability to independently validate the accuracy of provided evidence. The flip side of the coin is equally heinous. In the absence of evidence, FSIS feels free to flex its muscles and assesses all liability against the downline further processing plant for the presence of enteric bacteria at their establishment, even though the establishments more often than not do not slaughter. Again, planting seeds of future outbreaks. The intentional delay in documenting evidence is not indicative of a truly “science-based” system, and dismays true scientists. This constitutes an agency-endorsed artificial restriction on complete scientific procedures when public health is at risk.

Two of the foundational legs on which HACCP was constructed are (a) Preventive Actions, accomplished via the plant’s Hazard Analysis and the establishment of appropriate Critical Limits, Critical Control Points, SOP’s, SSOP’s, Pre-Requisite Plans, etc, and (b) Corrective Actions to be taken on those rare events when food safety problems occur. A close review of the majority of corrective actions and HACCP reassessments subsequent to pathogen outbreaks and recalls clearly indicate that FSIS does not require corrective actions at the SOURCE of contamination, but rather at the downline DESTINATION of previously contaminated meat. More seeds being sown for future outbreak harvests. The agency’s chronic failure to traceback to the origin of contamination continually insulates the origin from enforcement actions, endorses the source plants’ operations, and guarantees future recurrences, while hagriding the innocent downline destination plants.

FSIS’ typical response to public revelations such as the current Hallmark/Westland problem and the recurring E.coli problems in 2007 has been the production of numerous additional Notices and Directives, all designed to portray the agency as the consuming public’s best friend. FSIS policy makers do not realize that a flow of words is not proof of wisdom………or sincerity. Notice 65-07 is but the latest in a long parade of agency proclamations which are intentionally designed to torment and harass small downline plants and assess all liability against them, while removing agency focus from the large slaughter establishments. Risk Based Inspection is another example of “a lot to do about nothing”.

Revelation of systemic agency abhorrence of unbiased, truly science-based meat inspection policies could fill a book. What is more difficult is authoring science based AND common sense resolutions to this unnecessary circumvention of basic scientific protocol. The following suggestions constitute a substantial starting point in the promotion of science, while protecting public health.

First of all, progress would indeed have been made if the previous organoleptic system had been maintained, COUPLED WITH substantial microbial testing. HACCP threw out the baby with the bath water. HACCP Plans still provide “potential” benefits, but not when they result in passing all liability downstream with the previously-contaminated meat. God gave us the sense of sight, smell, feel etc, so let’s use them. To claim that our organoleptic senses provide no benefit in a meat inspection system is akin to the tried and failed “new math” system of a few decades ago.

FSIS must author policies which not only allow, but in fact mandate tracebacks to the ORIGIN of contamination. Granted, when bad meat is detected already in commerce via public health outbreaks, the ability to traceback to the origin is more difficult. But, when bad meat is discovered in a plant or via lab test results, a conclusive and expeditious determination of the source is possible, if only FSIS could summon up the courage to fulfill this vital task.

Command and control must be returned to FSIS. More than one OIG investigative report concluded that USDA’s implementation of HACCP had reduced its oversight short of what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer, and that inspection personnel did not know what authority they had. Concurrently, a well-defined and thoroughly-explained FSIS policy must be authored which allows aggrieved companies the right to appeal the actions of agency personnel who sometimes exceed their lawful authority, AND the right to legal recourse in civil proceedings.

FSIS must commence a substantial increase of microbial testing at all plants, with the highest increase occurring at slaughter facilities of all sizes. Testing at slaughter plants should be done on carcasses, trimmings, ground beef, AND boxed beef. In recent years FSIS repeatedly has stated that it desires to be open and transparent in all its dealings, and that the industry must embrace “robust” testing protocol. In light of this, all lab results of agency-conducted testing must be posted on a web site available to all, in real time. Indeed, now is the time for sincere transparency.

FSIS must request substantial new funding from Congress to hire more inspectors, and to fund a dramatic increase in testing. There could not be a better time than now to request increased funding, since the agency and our industry have been under media assault for more than a year……..for good reason.

Was the Hallmark/Westland failure caused by, or enabled by FSIS “Hands Off” policies? Whether yes or no, an aggressive agency acceptance of a “Hands On” policy would reduce future recurrences.

Rather than continually harvesting what HACCP’s seeds have sown, let’s perform some genetic modification of HACCP, conduct open heart surgery, and require FSIS to return to a “Hands On” inspection status.

We must jettison the current meat inspection system which was established to benefit FSIS and the large slaughter plants, and replace it with a meat inspection system solely designed to benefit the goals of public health and safe food.

Some industries may respond well to deregulation and self-policing. The food industry is NOT one of them.

Respectfully submitted by John Munsell, this 19th day of February, 2008.

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