Once upon a time – about 10 or 15 years ago – there was a US supermarket chain that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We'll call it "Oceans."
Oceans employed a Vice President of Quality Assurance – we'll call him Dr. Bob – who had worked for them for more than 25 years, and was nearing retirement. The Quality Assurance department consisted of Dr. Bob and one lab technician, Billy.
Dr. Bob worried about the microbiological safety of the beef trim that Oceans was purchasing from slaughterhouses to produce its fresh ground beef. He was especially concerned about E. coli O157:H7. But his budget was limited. He couldn't afford to use the elaborate conventional test methods that were available at the time.
When Dr. Bob learned about a newly approved, inexpensive method for counting total E. coli and E. coli O157:H7, he decided to act. He notified Oceans' beef trim suppliers that he would test every shipment of beef trim, and would reject any product that either contained E. coli O157:H7 or had too high a count of total E. coli.
The slaughterhouses rebelled, and threatened to stop supplying Oceans. If Dr. Bob found E. coli O157:H7 and rejected a shipment, his supplier would be obliged to report this to USDA. Finally, a compromise was reached. Dr. Bob would limit his testing to E. coli O157, and not run the H7 part of the procedure. The slaughterhouses would agree to accept a return of product based on E. coli O157. And since the H7 part of the test was never carried out, no supplier would have to report a positive E. coli O157:H7 test result to USDA.
This Gentleman's Agreement continued for a couple of years, until Dr. Bob retired. Billy, the lab technician, took over the Quality Assurance department responsibilities, but not the title. Soon afterwards, Oceans' corporate management yielded to the slaughterhouses and terminated their E. coli O157 testing program.
This is not a fable. It really happened. I know, because our company developed the rapid test method, and supplied the test components to Dr. Bob.
Sadly, the industry mindset that Dr. Bob had to deal with still exists today. Michael Moss reported in Friday's New York Times that slaughterhouses continue to resist supplying meat to grinders that want to test beef trim for E. coli O157:H7. Fairbank Farms – the source of the ground beef behind the latest outbreak – used to test beef trim, but stopped doing so when slaughterhouses refused to sell meat to the company.
This is no way to run a food safety system. While it's not possible for testing to guarantee product safety, closing our eyes to contamination will not make it go away.
It's time for USDA and the meat industry to put food safety first!