US meat industry says beef safer than ever

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags E. coli Agriculture

US companies have made significant progress over the past decade in making meat safer but should not be obliged to publish inspection test results, said the head of a leading trade body this week.

J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute (AMI), said the large reduction in E.coli​ cases over the past 10 years was directly linked to heavy investment by the meat industry in safety research.

Speaking on CNN’s Larry King Live show this week, he said: “These illnesses are down 60 percent in the last 10 years. And the reason for that reduction in E. coli related illnesses is because the incidence of that pathogen in our beef products has dropped by 45 percent during that same 10-year period and that's not just a random development. It's because of investment, technology, research, more sophisticated process control. So we are making significant progress in taking a very safe food supply and making it even safer.”

E.coli figures disputed

He said the meat industry had invested “tens of millions of dollars”​ over the past decade on research programmes to make its products safer.

Boyle was part of a panel that included food safety lawyer Bill Marler, former U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa A. Murano, and Barbara Kowalcyk, director of food safety at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention.

Both Marler and Kowalcyk challenged the AMI’s president’s assessment of the figures, with the former saying there had been “a pretty significant increase over the last three years” ​of E.coli​ related illnesses and deaths.

Kowalcyk said Boyle’s 60 per cent reduction claim was “misleading” ​and a “misuse of data”​ that she believed came from USDA's regulatory testing program. She added this was not designed “to give us an idea of what the prevalence of pathogens in the food supply are”​ or supply year to year comparisons.

Test results

The meat body chief also defended modern agriculture production, saying that “high volume, low cost, efficient meat and poultry processing facilities” ​had given US consumers “an abundant variety of safe and wholesome products at a very reasonable price”.

However, he rejected calls from attorney Marler that meat processors “need to be completely open with their test results. We need to be able to go online and see what Cargill's test results for e. Coli are”.​ He countered by saying that companies’ non-compliance reports were publicly available through the USDA.

“The Department of Agriculture conducts 15,000 tests for E. coli each year,”​ said Boyle. “Those test results are aggregated, and made available to the public. That's why we know the incidence of E.coli in ground beef has dropped significantly in the last ten years.”

He concluded: “The beef supply is safer today in terms of E. coli incidents than it was five years ago. It was safer five years ago than it was ten years ago. We continue to make enormous investments in technology and process controls.”

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