By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
To figure out what levels of bacteria should be considered unacceptable, the USDA collected small samples of beef at 563 plants around the United States. Then the agency calculated averages for the prevalence of pathogens such as salmonella. Spiritas and other Southern beef producers would learn later that the samples the USDA used were mostly from places besides the South, where higher temperatures combined with moisture provide an ideal breeding ground for salmonella. "About 70 percent of the samples of the 563 plants were done in the East Coast and West Coast," Spiritas says. "There were very few Texas plants sampled."
Even worse for Southern producers, the USDA decided to use salmonella as its primary pathogen for testing. Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds; shows up in beef, poultry, and vegetables; and is typically transmitted to humans through salmonella-contaminated foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency. About 1.4 million Americans contract mostly non-life-threatening food-related illnesses from salmonella each year. The USDA never claimed salmonella was potentially deadly like E. coli O157:H7. That strain of E. coli is considered so dangerous that if it's discovered on meat, the USDA immediately asks the meat producer to voluntarily launch a recall.
For purposes of the new standard, salmonella was declared an "indicator" pathogen. According to this logic, the presence of a lot of salmonella means there are probably a lot of other bad bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7.
The Food Chemical News, which publishes beef and other food-industry news, ran a report on the new testing standard that says some at the USDA were concerned about it. "Many officials at the department at the time knew that the salmonella testing component stood on shaky legal ground and would likely be challenged," the 36-page report says. "Many sources at USDA who worked at the department at the time describe heated battles about the legality and scientific validity of the salmonella standards."
Spiritas says the beef industry was way ahead of government and was already doing a great deal to reduce the levels of salmonella and other bacteria. Industry, not government, was driving changes, he says. "Right after Jack in the Box, industry, including our company, got very concerned," he says. "No one wanted to face the prospect of manufacturing a ground-beef product that could make somebody sick and that could expose the company to massive liability in the marketplace."
"It's a very strict and detailed inspection. It's very difficult to comply with," Spiritas says. "We were doing everything...beyond and above what's called good manufacturing practices."
Supreme Beef had started doing its own microbiological testing after the Jack in the Box scare, and the company supplied big-name retailers that won't tolerate substandard products, he says. "Our company was a major producer," he says. "We were producing 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of ground beef a day, three million pounds a week. You have to have acceptable product. You have to be a leader in the marketplace to keep that much demand and keep those major retailers happy."
Supreme Beef employed a professional cleaning team at night and used modern techniques to keep the plant clean during daily operations. Employees had their boots automatically sprayed with sanitation solution intermittently throughout the day, and they were required to dip their hands into a publicly visible sanitizer after returning from the bathroom.
No matter what the USDA found the average level of salmonella to be for U.S. ground-beef plants, Spiritas says, he and his executives were certain their operation would be in the ballpark. "We weren't concerned, because whatever their baseline numbers were, we figured, OK, we ought to fall within mid-range, if not better," he says. "We had extremely strict quality control programs at this company, far more restrictive than what the USDA required."
That confidence led to a mistake that would end up killing Supreme Beef. Companies in the largest category of beef producers, those with more than 500 employees, were supposed to be the first to start complying with the HACCP program. Because Supreme Beef was considered a small company, it didn't have to start complying until January 1999. But Supreme Beef asked the USDA to get them into the program faster. It wasn't that Supreme Beef wanted more federal scrutiny, Spiritas says; it just didn't want to lose business.
"Our company petitioned the USDA to accelerate and go under HACCP a year earlier, because we did not want the large firms to have a perceived marketing advantage," he says. "We didn't want them to be after our customers, saying they are already operating under HACCP and Supreme Beef is not. We wanted to go on it early. We thought we were ready."