No hurry

October 07, 2007

A month is too long. America's creaky and understaffed food-safety network is notoriously slow to react when food-borne illnesses erupt. The deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration told a recent conference in Washington that the average delay between detection and public notice is three weeks - which he acknowledged is way too slow.

But hard on the heels of that conference comes the big recall of Topps hamburger patties because of E. coli contamination. In two separate cases, lawsuits have been filed by people who say they were hospitalized after eating Topps meat because of confirmed cases of E. coli illness - in August. Yet the initial Topps recall was announced Sept. 25.

It took a while, of course, for public health investigators to trace the E. coli back to Topps, which went out of business on Friday. But a lapse of 31 days between confirmation of the illness and the public recall notice posted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is inexcusable. As Topps itself pointed out, by now most of the potentially contaminated meat has been eaten.

There are a few things to keep in mind. America's meat supply is safer now than it was as recently as a decade ago. Yet cases of E. coli contamination have been on the rise this year, and that's worrisome.

It's important, too, to understand that the meat itself - that is, the muscle of the animal - does not carry the bacteria. E. coli lives in the intestines of cows, and the meat is contaminated during slaughter. Contaminated meat can then in turn contaminate the equipment that is used to grind it and shape it. That's why a hamburger is considerably more likely to be contaminated than a steak, and why a preformed hamburger is riskier than one you make yourself from a package of ground beef (or, better yet, one made of meat that you grind up at home). The more equipment involved, the more processing - the greater the risk.

All of the ground beef sold by Topps in the preceding 12 months is now subject to recall, though that's mostly about a lapse in careful bookkeeping. It's an excess of caution - but that's not a bad thing when the system doesn't work the way it is supposed to.

A better idea would be to construct a more responsive system, of inspectors and of public health workers - one that could head off illness before it strikes.

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