Jul 22, 2002
On July 19 the government announced the recall of 19 million pounds of ground beef produced by the ConAgra Company’s Greeley, Colorado plant because of E. coli contamination. This was after 19 people were reported to have fallen seriously ill in six states ranging from Michigan to California. Undoubtedly, many dozens, if not hundreds or thousands more, were affected by the meat.
E. coli is a bacteria in the intestines of cows. If it escapes during meat processing the bacteria can result in diarrhea and lead to kidney failure. It can kill the very young and very old – and make other people quite sick.
The company and the United States Department of Agriculture were very slow to react to this contamination danger. In May the company was warned that the Greeley plant had shipped out contaminated meat. Finally at the end of June, it recalled a very small amount of the contaminated meat. But it still continued to produce and distribute contaminated meat for 11 more days. It wasn’t until July 19 that ConAgra recalled 19million pounds, long after the meat had been processed, sold, eaten and made how many other people ill.
How can this happen in a country which has known about the serious dangers of contaminated meat for almost a century, as well as how to inspect meat so as to prevent contamination?
Quite simply, there was no inspection.
Inspection has always been lax, but over the past 15 years it’s gotten worse. During the 1990s, the Department of Agriculture got rid of 1,400 meat inspectors, and eventually stopped inspection of individual carcases, giving in to the pressure of meat packing companies that wanted to operate plants so fast that it was impossible to inspect individual carcases. Today the government carries out only 7,000 random inspections of hamburger a year in the whole country.
The current law lets each company decide what safety program should exist in its plants – and when to recall meat, and how much. Just as ConAgra did, companies delay the recall as long as possible, and try to hide the problem, so people don’t even know why they got sick.
Who could imagine a worse arrangement than the companies needing inspection doing it themselves?