Michele Bachmann stopped by a meat packing plant last week and commented that food safety regulations were strangling small business. She’s not the only politician to complain about excessive government regulations, so I thought I’d look at what regulations a meat packing plant has to follow. Which one of these regulations do you consider unnecessary?
I’ll start off by saying that the particular meat packing plant Ms. Bachmann stopped at, Amend Packing Company, doesn’t show up in a Google search for misdeeds. This puts them solidly in the majority of small businesses. Most people who own small businesses are working hard to produce a quality product, in this case, beef.
Federal regulations cover three general areas: potential causes of adulteration of the product, sanitary conditions of the plant, and the ability of inspectors to inspect the premises.
Regulation: Inspecting the Premises
This one is fairly self-explanatory. An inspector must be able to view all areas and equipment used in the manufacture or processing of the product.
A company wouldn’t be allowed to lock the doors to one part of the plant and claim it’s not being used, for instance. Or they wouldn’t be allowed to push equipment against a wall so that an inspector couldn’t look inside and inspect for proper cleanliness.
Regulation: Sanitary Conditions
Another set of performance standards that must be met are basic hygiene and cleanliness – employees must wash their hands, equipment must be clean and functioning, bathrooms in the plant must be available and clean, and so forth. From the Food Safety Inspection Service’s training manual:
Performance standards set the results to be achieved, but they don’t prescribe the step-by-step procedures to produce safe meat and poultry products. Simply put, the expected result is defined in the regulation, but the methods to achieve that result are not specified.
This gives a company a lot of flexibility in determining the best way to achieve the hygiene and cleanliness standards.
Regulation: Preventing Adulteration of the Product
FSIS documents are more specific in this area. The concern is with preventing the introduction of pathogens to the meat.
The owner of Amend Packing Company specifically mentioned this to Michele Bachmann. Again, I want to reiterate that Amend seems to be a clean place and I’m not saying anything to the contrary. Most small meat packing companies are clean.
According to the Des Moines Register, the owner said he “wished federal regulations could allow, for example, for a single e. coli test rather than tests at multiple steps in the packing process.”
Testing for e. coli is fairly recent in the federal regulations. A company is required to test a product at every point at which it might become contaminated with e. coli.
So, for instance, a meat packing company likely starts with a side of beef and cuts it into various steaks and roasts, grinds up tougher cuts into hamburger, and the really tough stuff gets put into sausage. The steaks might be mechanically tenderized by scoring, “needling” or puncturing the steak, or by injecting steaks with a marinade.
Any time the surface of the meat is cut, another possible avenue of contamination is introduced. If, for instance, e. coli has gotten into the sausage making machine, testing the ground beef wouldn’t show contamination. Hence the requirement for testing every product, not just one or two steaks.
Sausage has a fairly long shelf life in the refrigerator and freezer, so most likely there wouldn’t be a noticeable wave of illness from the hypothetically contaminated sausage. Only a nationwide regulatory agency would notice something like that.
Regulating Common Sense?
These first two sets of standards are pretty much common sense and they’re the regulations that politicians want you to think of when they say we shouldn’t be regulating common sense. After all, you make sure your kitchen and bathrooms are clean and functioning (and probably the rest of your home, too). You wash your hands before preparing food for your family. Who doesn’t?
Well, you and I do. Most people in the food industry do, too, and would continue to do so without being told by the government.
However, there is that minority who would try to save money by not calling the plumber to fix the sink or drainage. Or they would try to save money by diluting cleaning solution so much that it’s just tap water.
Eventually, a business cutting corners like that would get people sick. All meat packers would come under suspicion by the general public, not just the one cutting corners. It would impact the bottom line of innocent businesses and some would have to shut their doors.
Food safety regulations are in the best interest of any food business doing the right thing. An unregulated market only helps those who cut corners to make a profit at the expense of public health and safety.
Food Recalls in September 2011
Just to underscore the usefulness of government food safety regulations, here’s a list of this month’s food recalls due to pathogens. We wouldn’t know about these if testing weren’t required.
28 Sep, grape tomatoes due to possible salmonella
27 Sep, 131,300 pounds of ground beef due to e. coli
26 Sep, spinach dip due to listeria
23 Sep, 40,000 pounds of frozen ground beef due to e. coli
23 Sep, processed cantaloupe associated with the 14 Sep recall, also listeria
16 Sep, queso fresco cheese because of listeria
14 Sep, cantaloupe due to listeria
14 Sep, fresh hot basil due to salmonella
13 Sep, avocado pulp and halves due to listeria
11 Sep, 185,000 pounds of ground turkey due to salmonella