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Costco, Tyson Foods Reach E. Coli Testing Agreement

Oct 9, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Costco and Tyson Foods  have struck an agreement that will allow the retailer to test Tyson's beef trimmings for E. coli prior to grinding and mixing.  The agreement comes just days after The New York Times published an expose detailing gaps in the way ground beef is tested for E. coli.

As we reported earlier this week, the Times reported on Sunday that much of the ground beef consumed in the U.S is made from beef trimmings.  These ingredients come from parts of the cow that are most likely to be tainted with E. coli bacteria.   Despite this, most meat processors test their ground beef only after trimmings from multiple slaughterhouses have been mixed and ground together.   This practice makes it difficult to determine the original source of E. coli should it be found during later testing, or if an outbreak occurs.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows ground beef manufacturers  to devise their own safety plans, and only “encourages” them to test ingredients prior to using them. Unfortunately, most slaughterhouses will only sell to manufacturers who agree not to test ingredients for E. coli prior to use, the Times said. The slaughterhouses fear a positive E. coli test will set off a recall of their ingredients.

According to The New York Times, Costco is one of the few large ground beef manufacturers that does test trimmings for E. coli  as they arrive at its plant, prior to grinding.  Tyson previously had not sold trimmings to Costco because of this testing.  Because of the new agreement, Costco will begin buying beef trimmings for making hamburger from Tyson.

Meanwhile, the Times expose has  prompted a response from the USDA.  In a statement released Monday evening, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said: "The story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic. We all know we can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend's paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7."

According to The Washington Post, Vilsack's statement noted that, among other things, the Obama administration already has established a Food Safety Working Group and appointed a chief medical officer at that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to "reaffirm its role as a public health agency."  However, the Post also noted that the Vilsack's statement failed to mention there is still no undersecretary for food safety to oversee FSIS.

As we've reported previously, critics of the USDA argue that the agency is ineffective because it is tasked with both protecting public health and promoting the agricultural industry.   To often, these critics say, when those roles come into conflict, industry wins out.

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