By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Instead, the problems began when Supreme Beef, in an effort to keep ahead of its competition, voluntarily entered the USDA's new science-based beef-testing program way ahead of schedule. Because it was in the program early and struck out under the USDA's super-strict new testing regimen, Supreme Beef became the first company to challenge the USDA's authority to enforce the new standards embraced by consumer groups and President Bill Clinton. Supreme Beef took the federal government to U.S. District Court and won--blocking the USDA's authority to enforce its new standards. Even more infuriating to the USDA, Supreme Beef in a very public way advertised what microbiologists and many in the beef industry were already saying among themselves: that the new testing standards are terribly flawed.
Under the new regulations, nothing Supreme Beef ever did was enough to satisfy the USDA. And to the alarm of the beef industry, Supreme Beef would go into bankruptcy while doing everything possible to comply with the government. What happened to Supreme Beef, industry insiders say, could happen anywhere.
Before Jack in the Box, this particular strain of E. coli was practically unheard-of in the beef or restaurant industry. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of the USDA, believes a genetic mutation involving shigella (a strain of bacteria that can cause dysentery) and E. coli occurred, creating what is known as shiga-toxin, which produces O157:H7. Much research has been done since E. coli O157:H7 was first identified, but experts still don't know why the pathogen--a microorganism that can cause disease--appears intermittently in cattle. E. coli O157:H7 isn't harmful to cattle, and its presence is neither long-term nor predictable. But it can be deadly to humans. Very little of the pathogen, as few as 10 organisms, is needed to infect a human. The very young and very old are particularly susceptible. An E. coli O157:H7 infection can cause what is known as hemolytic-uremic syndrome, leading to kidney failure in the very young and thrombotic thrombocytopenic pupura, which causes a similar illness, in adults.
After the Jack in the Box scare, Americans wanted something done to modernize the USDA's 90-year-old meat-inspection program. Consumers demanded that the agriculture department take action, and in 1994, raw beef containing E. coli O157:H7 was declared by the USDA to be adulterated and unfit for human consumption.
To help identify meats containing E. coli and other potentially dangerous pathogens, administrators created a new food-safety standard first developed for the space program in the 1960s. Called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP, often pronounced hassip), the standard subscribes to the idea that meats can become contaminated at certain critical times during processing, such as hide removal. Inspectors use microbiological spot testing to estimate the presence and levels of certain bacteria. If the numbers of bacteria are high, then some part of the food-preparation procedure has failed. The new inspection process was a major departure from the old "poke and sniff" method, which relied heavily on visual inspections of meat at the slaughterhouse.
Glenn Morris, professor and chairman of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, was one of the scientists who helped write the HACCP regulations. Under the old system, he says, USDA inspectors basically ensured that animals were alive and healthy before slaughter. The new standard required individual plants to keep their operations free of excessive bacteria, he says. "It's a system whereby each plant is essentially held responsible for defining what the major problems are in the product it is producing, and for developing appropriate control measures for those hazards," Morris says.
The USDA also wanted some teeth in its new plan and asked Congress to amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act so that the USDA had authority to withdraw its inspectors if the new standards were not met. (Inspectors must be present at any USDA-approved meat-processing plant for the plant to operate legally.)
The meat industry vehemently disagreed with the idea. While testing could be used to ensure that cleanliness standards were being followed, it should not be used as a "gotcha" to shut a meat plant down, industry leaders said. Congress agreed with the industry and rejected the proposed legislation twice--most recently in July.
"Industry was very, very vocal and adamant that it is unfair to use a microbial standard to penalize a firm," Spiritas says.
Consumer groups, however, liked the new standard and pushed hard, and President Clinton supported the changes. Jack in the Box was still very much in the public's memory, and Clinton wanted the new food-safety program to be one of his presidential legacies. So, without legislation backing it up, the USDA in 1996 went ahead and adopted its new testing plan.