By Jim Schutze
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After the court decision, Tom Billy, one of the USDA's top administrators, issued a statement to the press in which he asked Supreme Beef to voluntarily close its doors.
Spiritas responded by issuing another press statement saying that he had no intention of stopping ground-beef production at his plant. "We were going to continue making high-quality ground beef just like we always had," Spiritas says.
The USDA struck back by announcing publicly that it believed Supreme Beef's product was unsafe, and that it was putting the company back on indefinite, daily testing for E. coli O157:H7. As long as Supreme Beef was in business, the tests would continue, the USDA told Supreme Beef.
Spiritas says that after the first recall, he made a personal commitment never to put Supreme Beef or his employees in that position again. He began holding his beef shipments at the Dallas plant until the E. coli test results were returned from the USDA. "You can either ship the product to the marketplace, or you can do what's called test and hold. That is, you make your product, but you hold it at the plant. You do not allow it to go to commerce until you have that result," Spiritas says. "We asked the government to guarantee us when we'd get the test results back. They wouldn't do it."
Supreme Beef's production was already way down because of its dwindling customer base. Wal-Mart, Albertson's, and Dairy Queen were among those who quit doing business with Supreme Beef after the recall, Spiritas says.
Then the USDA announced publicly that the company had failed another batch of salmonella tests. As a result, the USDA said, the Agricultural Marketing Service, which operates the school-lunch program for schoolchildren from low-income families, was canceling its contract with Supreme Beef and recalling 1,200 tons of beef shipped to schools in 16 states in the spring. It didn't matter that most of the ground beef was already eaten or that no one had gotten ill from it, or that salmonella isn't considered an adulterant in ground beef any more than it is in chicken. The USDA's announcement made national news. To keep Supreme Beef out of the bidding for the coming year's contract, the Agricultural Marketing Service subsequently announced that it was changing its standards for ground beef to incorporate the USDA's new testing standards. Then the USDA appealed Fish's ruling.
Supreme Beef was a gasp away from death. "There was no way we could continue," Spiritas says. "When the USDA made the decision to appeal this case, we knew that they were not going to take off the boxing gloves. We could not continue to be subjected to unlimited E. coli testing. There's no firm in America that could pass unlimited E. coli testing. That's number one. Number two, no firm in America has ever been subjected to it."
Supreme Beef filed for bankruptcy in September.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group called "one of the most powerful food voices in the country" by The New York Times, disagrees that Supreme Beef was held to an impossible standard. She says that microbiological testing is working at other plants and that it has made the beef and poultry industries clean up their acts. Salmonella levels have dropped dramatically nationwide. Supreme Beef should have made sure the product it was buying, the boneless trimmings, was free from bacteria, she says.
"If the Jack in the Box company had said the same thing, then we would see a lot more contaminated ground beef on consumers' plates and in fast-food restaurants today, but the fast-food industry recognized that they could control the quality of the meat going into the hamburgers from fast-food restaurants by controlling their suppliers. Companies like Supreme Beef are being asked to do nothing less than what the fast-food companies did following Jack in the Box, and that is to monitor and control the quality of meat coming into their [businesses]."
The USDA stands by its testing methods and says that the reduced levels of salmonella and the large number of meat processors that meet or exceed the new standard point to the program's success.
"There's something with salmonella that somehow it occurs more in the South than in the North, and disproportionately if you look at your baseline data," says Mucklow, of the California-based National Meat Association. "They [the USDA] have spurned an effort to have any kind of understanding or discussion.
"They say they don't see it. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at this data and say, Gee, there is something curious about this data here. It's hardly strange to microbiologists who find that salmonella likes a warm and wet environment, and you get more of that in Texas and the southern area than you do in the North," she says.
The USDA's own information shows that plants in the South are having difficulty meeting the new standards. The USDA's latest salmonella compliance report shows that 19 of 73 Texas plants tested have failed at least one sample set, and that four plants--two of which were Supreme Beef's Dallas and Ladonia plants--failed three sets. The other two failures passed their fourth round of testing.