E.coli & the Gulf Oil Spill: Lessons to be Learned

If USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) were assigned the responsibility to investigate the current oil spill in the gulf, and provide solutions, they would be as follows:

  1.  Louisiana, Mississippi, and other states are responsible for the environmental degradation because they allowed contaminants to enter their boundaries.
  2. Petroleum is a contaminant only when it arrives at the destination, namely, the coastlines.  Prior to its arrival, petroleum is a relatively harmless minor irritant.
  3. Louisiana, Mississippi and other states must implement corrective actions to prevent future recurrences.
  4. BP is not liable for this impending catastrophe, because (a) BP is producing a legal commodity, and (b) all liability for this catastrophe must be assumed by the destination states.

Any sensible person would discredit the four statements above, properly classifying them as inane science fiction absurdities.  I fully agree.  However, USDA/FSIS uses these precise claims when the agency investigates food-borne outbreaks caused by E.coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella.

First of all, downstream establishments which unwittingly purchase USDA Inspected and Passed meat products which were previously contaminated with pathogens are held solely liable by FSIS for the presence of the lethal bacteria.  Admittedly, this is absurd.  Nonetheless, FSIS operates under this mindset. 

Secondly, FSIS claims that E.coli is an adulterant only when found in the finished product, which is ground beef.  Previously, when the bacteria were detected on carcasses and on intact cuts of meat, FSIS considers the pathogen to be a relatively harmless minor contaminant.

Thirdly, FSIS assigns all responsibility to downstream further processing plants, retail meat markets, restaurants and institutions to prevent their future receipt of meat which was previously contaminated with INVISIBLE bacteria.  How is this impossible task to be accomplished?  FSIS states that the destination facilities must author more thorough purchase specifications, test incoming meat (at their own expense), hire 3rd party auditors to monitor their source slaughter suppliers’ adherence to food safety practices, demand Certificates of Analysis, ad infinitum.  In other words, if the destination facilities would merely fill their files to overflowing with a plethora of paperwork (much of which has no connection to safe food), then their source slaughter providers would be prohibited from ever again producing unsafe meat.

In stark contrast, if FSIS would adequately inspect the source originating slaughter plants, then the victimized downstream DESTINATIONS of previously contaminated meat would not be required to employ this feckless after-the-fact paper chase.  The current method of meat non-inspection at the large slaughter plants, called HACCP, has allowed FSIS to semi-retire at the source originating slaughter plants,  effectively deregulating these transnational behemoths, while empowering the agency to hyper-regulate the small, downstream destination facilities, a much easier prey.

When FSIS fully succeeds in its goal of removing federal inspection from all small plants, but outbreaks and recalls continue unabated, who will FSIS then blame?  For starters:  Louisiana and Mississippi.  Or better yet, allegedly negligent consumers who don’t fully cook raw meat, or fail to remove petroleum from their seafood.

Let’s hope FSIS is forcefully prevented from any involvement in mitigating the impending environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

John W. Munsell, Manager
Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
Miles City, MT
“Force the Source”