Last Weeks Historical Beef Recall

By Joe Fassler. The New Food Economy

Late last week, JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, recalled 6.9 million pounds of ground beef that it said may have been tainted with Salmonella Newport. Here’s what we know four days into the recall: the strain is responsible for sickening 57 people in 16 states. All of the meat came from the same JBS plant in Tolleson, Arizona. And in less than a week, the incident has already reached historic proportions. It’s the largest recall of beef since the notorious Rancho Feeding Inc. recall of 2014. Former USDA food safety specialist Carl Custer has said it’s largest-ever recall of ground beef related to Salmonella.

Still, major questions remain. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may again broaden the scope of the recall, as it already did on Thursday. More stores may be added to the list of affected retailers published over the weekend. And, of course, more Americans may continue to fall ill. But while basic facts—how much meat, from which stores, causing how many illnesses—remain unclear, a larger uncertainty looms. Namely: How does nearly 7 million pounds of beef get exposed to Salmonella in the first place, then get shipped out to the public? What, exactly, went wrong at Tolleson?

The people I spoke to for this story suggest this outbreak had a clear origin point: a dairy farm in the Southwest. That’s important, because dairy cows processed for meat turn out to be a kind of food safety blind spot. For reasons I’ll explain, dairy cows sickened by Salmonella are more likely than healthy ones to be sent to meat plants for slaughter. Once there, they’re likely to be ground up and used as filler in thousands of pounds of beef, dramatically increasing their risk potential. Perhaps most surprisingly, there’s no system in place to track or disarm this risk. In fact, thanks to a quirk in food safety law, meatpackers aren’t required to test for Salmonella. And even when it is present, the government can’t really do anything about it—not even if millions of pounds of tainted product are at stake.

While we may never know the exact details of this outbreak, we can look to previous recalls for clues—and established facts point to a massive, ongoing food safety crisis hidden in plain sight.

But how does Salmonella Newport get into dairy cows in the first place, and why is that strain so likely to end up in our hamburgers? This part of the story that has to do with biology, economics, and regulation—and it’s where things start to get very interesting.

At large-scale, intensive dairies like the ones that proliferate in California, productivity is all-important. Cows are hooked up by their udders to pneumatic sucking devices and placed on “rotary milking parlours,” originally called Rotolactors—a slowly turning wheel of automated milking stalls, kind of like a cow Gravitron. To best earn a living, dairy farmers need to make sure every cow on that wheel is as productive as physically possible. So when a cow’s output significantly drops for any reason, the farmer must make the difficult decision about whether or not to “cull” the cow: to sell it for meat, and find a better-producing replacement to take its place.

Culling is an unfortunate reality of dairy production. Virtually all dairy cows are sold for meat at some point, but farmers never want to sell a cow they’ve invested time, money, and effort in until they really have to. The difficult question farmers continually face is whether it would be cheaper and more efficient to treat a cow’s ailment, losing productivity all the while, or just sell it for meat and replace it.

A sick dairy cow is more likely than a healthy one to make its way into our food.

Salmonella bacteria can get into a dairy herd in a variety of ways. It can be introduced by new replacement cattle carrying it, or brought in by the rodents or wild birds attracted to grain-heavy dairy cow feed. Because of the stress of modern dairies, cows tend to be quite susceptible to these germs, especially as they age.   

“If you can imagine dairy cow environments, there’s a lot of cows, often moving around in a contained space,” says CDC’s Megan Nichols. “One of the things that might really predispose [dairy cows] to infections are some of the environmental factors and just being mixed with hundreds of other cows. I think anytime you bring a large group together, whether it’s a group of people or a herd of cattle, you’re potentially introducing new diseases.”

Salmonella Newport can also cause what veterinarians call an “abortion storm”—a rash of cows in a herd suffering spontaneous abortion. Cows who suffer an abortion can’t produce milk for the season—enough incentive for farmers, hard-pressed to feed and house and animals that can’t produce, to send them to slaughter. But even cows that see a mild to moderate drop in production are likely to be pulled from the herd. In this way, a strange kind of logic plays out across the industry: The sicker an animal is, the more likely it is to enter the food supply. Because when cows stop producing milk for any reason—whether it’s due to age, stress, or disease—we usually end up eating them.

When infected dairy cows leave the herd, they take their Salmonella with them. Animals processed at the large plants like the one in Tolleson often travel hundreds of miles to get there, a stressful, crowded journey that makes them more likely to both contract and spread illness. Finally, at the slaughterhouse, the Salmonella that isn’t really a health risk on dairy farms suddenly becomes one. Because meat isn’t pasteurized like milk, after all. Plenty of Americans like their burgers medium-rare.

The government’s lack of regulatory power over Salmonella shrouds the recent JBS recall in secrecy. Because it cannot be said that the company did anything wrong, USDA can’t insist on providing transparency to the public. Legally, JBS is only recalling potentially tainted beef because it wants to. As such, we may never know what really happened.

There’s only one question that remains, really: why, knowing what we know, we don’t do more about it.

Peggy Van Cleef