Eliminating E. coli O157:H7 from the beef supply has been the top food safety goal of the North American beef industry for 19 years. The industry, notably at the processing level, has spent several billion dollars in pursuit of this goal. The reduction of the pathogen’s prevalence has been impressive, but a recent discovery of the pathogen in Canadian-produced beef raises new issues.
E. coli-related illnesses linked to ground beef and product recalls shook the U.S. industry for several years after the tragic Jack in the Box case in 1993. But from 2000 forward, the industry’s huge commitment began to pay dividends. The incidence of food-borne illnesses related to the pathogen fell 51% from 2000 through 2009, while its prevalence in ground beef fell 72%.
This year had been quiet in terms of beef recalls. That changed with a Sept. 17 recall of ground beef products produced at an Edmonton, Alberta, plant operated by XL Foods, Canada’s second largest beef processor. The recall expanded 13 times over the next three weeks to include whole-muscle cuts, short ribs and other intact cuts. By mid-October, the total amount of beef under recall involved several million pounds and more than 1,800 products.
That’s a small volume compared to U.S. recalls in the 1990s that involved 25-35 million lbs., but it was record large by Canadian standards. Canadian authorities responded by temporarily shutting down XL’s Brooks, Alberta, beef processing plant, the second largest in Canada. This forced Western Canadian cattle feeders to suffer big losses on their finished cattle and send more fed cattle south.
The recall was significant because it exposed the interdependent nature of the North American beef trade. Canada was the leading value market for U.S. beef exports in 2011, reaching $1.03 billion, which was a 41% increase over 2010. Volume to Canada was up 25% to 191,047 mt. Conversely, Canada was, and is, an important source of beef for the U.S. Imports in 2011 totaled 234,593 mt.
It was thus no surprise that the recall involved products sold on both sides of the border. It covered every province and territory in Canada, and 30 U.S. states and multiple major grocery chains. The fact that Texas was one of those states reveals how far beef travels from production to point of sale, and the importance of having extensive systems to track product in the event of illnesses.
The recall also illustrated how U.S. firms use Canadian beef. As of Oct. 8, USDA estimated that 1.1 million lbs. of trim and 1.4 million lbs. of primal and sub-primal cuts used to produce steaks, roasts, mechanically tenderized steaks and roasts plus ground beef were part of the recall received by U.S. firms.
Of more concern was that the recall included mechanically tenderized cuts. Recalls of such cuts (linked to E. coli-related illnesses) have occurred sporadically over the past decade. The last sizeable recall was of 250,000 lbs. of beef steak in late December 2009. Such recalls led USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to announce last March that it would publish a proposed rule on new labeling requirements for mechanically tenderized meat and poultry. The rule would require that a label include recommended cooking temperatures.
The requirement will involve billions of pounds of beef, as USDA estimates that 18% of all beef steaks and roasts manufactured in the U.S. are mechanically tenderized.
Industry organizations have long opposed a label, contending it won’t help consumers. They want more work done to establish if there is a link between mechanical tenderization, needle marinating and E. coli O157:H7-related illnesses. Whether USDA addresses these issues remains to be seen. Right now, it seems the industry faces yet another labeling requirement for its products.
Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly (www.cattle
buyersweekly.com). See his weekly market roundup at beefmagazine.com every Friday afternoon.