Slaughterhouse Jive

Dallas-based Supreme Beef fought what it believes are unfair regulations, only to wind up on the USDA's killing floor

Because of the court decision involving Supreme Beef, the USDA isn't moving to shut down any other beef producers, and they won't get tough until Supreme Beef's case is over, Mucklow says. They are afraid, she says, that courts in other federal districts will back up Fish's ruling.

"I would suggest to you that the agency in its own right, and this is just my assumption, has figured it better not have another Supreme on its hands," Mucklow says. "Its hands are very, very full in handling this one case, and like good regulators they can talk and they can negotiate and they can obfuscate. They can do a lot of things, but they don't have to bring another bride to the altar when they've lost."

Supreme Beef had supplied about one-fourth of the ground beef for the federal school-lunch program. The USDA's action against the company had the ancillary effect of raising the price of ground beef for schools and causing a national ground-beef shortage. The Agriculture Department reported in September that because of the new standard it adopted, which kept Supreme Beef out of the running for a contract, it was unable to buy enough ground beef for its school-lunch program.

The Nation's Restaurant News says schools need beef for everything from hamburgers to tacos and spaghetti, and that some schools have removed ground beef from lunch menus or contemplated buying from local markets. The price of lunch-program ground beef is up to $1.35 a pound, compared with $1.14 a year ago. In practical terms for schools, it means their federal lunch dollars aren't going as far as they did before Supreme Beef was forced out. This year, the federal government has spent $11 million more for 20 million fewer pounds of ground beef than it did during the same six months two years ago, according to Billy Cox, spokesman for the Agricultural Marketing Service. Cox says that the extra money is being spent to buy a better product and that beef producers are now meeting demand. "It is a new product, and we consider it a superior product," he says.

Another problem the USDA is having is that it is becoming obvious that testing ground beef for pathogens, particularly salmonella, is not practical, Mucklow says. Unlike a liquid that can be thoroughly mixed and then tested for even trace elements, ground beef, by its nature, is never completely mixed. So, while one side of a ground-beef patty can test negative for the presence of E. coli O157:H7, the other side can test positive.

"In a pound of hamburger, we might just be lucky or unlucky enough to take the little piece of meat that had microorganism on it," Mucklow says. "When you take a sample of ground beef, just a little piece of sample, all you get is what is in that exact sample. It cannot be truly representative of the pound of ground meat, and in order to test that pound of ground meat to get any kind of statistical satisfaction, you'd have to have lots and lots of samples."

Microbiologists outside the USDA appear to agree with those in the industry such as Mucklow. An article scheduled to appear in the International Journal of Food Microbiology next year says that the use of microbiology to test the end product is both impractical and misleading.

"A negative finding for a pathogen such as Escherichia coli O157:H7 gives no assurance that the organism is not present in a batch, although customers for beef commonly believe that it does," the article says. "...Batch testing of product is not an appropriate or effective means of assuring the microbiological safety of raw beef."

Mucklow suggests that the USDA could use a different indicator pathogen, one besides salmonella that is more reliably present in raw beef, to show that harmful bacteria may be present in a batch of ground beef. But, she says, the beef industry maintains that the USDA's HACCP standard should be used to monitor and maintain systems and protocols, not to say "gotcha" and effectively shut down a plant.

In court, the USDA is trying to get out of the jam that Supreme Beef caused. In its appeal, the USDA argues that Supreme Beef is now bankrupt and that there is no point for the court ruling to stay intact. One of Supreme Beef's lawyers, James Bowen of Jenkens & Gilchrist, says the agency's latest move will not hold up in court because the USDA is responsible for putting Supreme Beef into bankruptcy in the first place. What's more, he says, Supreme fully intends to be back in business one day.

Beef producers are intently watching the outcome of the appeal, and not just because they're concerned about a fellow industry operator such as Supreme Beef. Slaughterhouses know that the USDA may ultimately point the finger at them.

"None of the nation's largest meat companies publicly defended Supreme, because they feared the government would use the salmonella performance standard against them in the same manner," an article in the November issue of Meat News says. "The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the industry's most politically powerful trade organization, remained mum on the issue of Supreme, worried that investigations might further document the fact that the original and primary source of salmonella contamination of beef is cattle."

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