One of the larger meat producers supplying Wal-Mart with frozen hamburger patties cranked up its production during the summer of 2007 after it was purchased by a private equity firm which installed new managers. The Topps Meat company (now out of business) began to cut safety corners as it was squeezed between the high summer demand and Wal-Mart price concessions, and ultimately it distributed three large batches of meat contaminated by E-coli. More than forty people were made ill and 21.7 million pounds of beef were recalled.
The Company had been family-owned for 67 years before it was sold to the private equity firm in 2003. It didn't take long for the new ownership to exact a price in quality and safety, in the name of enhanced profits. Escherichia coli is normally not dangerous, however if the bacteria is the strain 0157:H7, it can cause severe diarrhea, kidney failure and death. The New York Times reported that the government estimates that up to 73,000 Americans per year are made ill by this strain of E. Coli--which is the underlying basis for recent recommendations on more complete cooking of beef.
In recent years, American beef, in particular, is showing up with higher levels of E. Coli and American distributors are also purchasing more beef from abroad. The Agriculture Department has refused to institute regulations on the meat packing industry, instead relying upon the industry to police itself. Topps' recall is the 16th of 2007 in the United States. After-the-fact, the Ag Department concluded that Topps did not conduct the testing necessary to protect its consumers and became lax in safety and pathogen-eliminating procedures as it attempted to ramp up production. Practices including failing to test incoming beef and mixing untested beef with other production runs have been identified. The Industry's 2002 "Guidelines" were not being followed. None of these problems was identified in daily on-site visits by the Ag Department inspectors.
The anti-regulation Bush Administration has agreed to "conduct a nationwide survey of what meat plants are doing to fight E.coli", according to "undersecretary for food Safety", Dr. Richard Raymond, responding to claims that the Ag Department was a "toothless tiger". In the case of Topps, the first E.coli problem surfaced in the summer of 2005, when the Company promised to make safety-related changes, including more thorough meat-testing. During the next two years it received citations for "persistent cleanliness problems" but the Ag Department claimed these citations are "routine"; think about that the next time the wait-staff asks you how you want your burger cooked. The Ag Department did not become seriously concerned until 2007, according to Dr. Raymond [I'm betting its a Ph.D.], when " a lot of the policies they had had in place were not being followed." Its records were so poor that no one could determine whether any of the meat it had produced in the past year was safe.
With government supervision such as this episode demonstrates, the Republican "Starve-the-beasters" are confirming their claim that government is of little practical value--at least when it is run by people who consider that the only value of government is as an opportunity to do private favors for friends.