October 9, 2009

The New York Times article on E. coli focusing almost exclusively on ground beef was another demand-damaging blow. The most troubling thing was not the overt sensationalism of the issue, but rather that a good portion of the article was justifiable and accurate. Sure, as an industry we have made tremendous progress relative to food-borne illness, and it certainly can be argued that the standard of 0% contamination is impossible to achieve. But another inescapable conclusion is that we must do a better job.

The article also took USDA to task for its competing goals of promoting agriculture and protecting consumers. I would argue that those two goals are rarely antagonistic and usually are congruent, but in today's age where profits and capitalism in general are deemed problematic, that is not an argument that is going to be well received. The USDA Secretary's tepid response that cited working groups and appointments, while largely deflecting any blame backwards to previous administrations, was received in the light it was given.

The cover-their-behinds attitude so prevalent throughout the article by retailers, processors, and government entities was the most damning aspect of the article. This attitude may be an understandable part of any government bureaucracy with political overtones, and a necessity in today's litigious society, but nevertheless it portrays the image that other concerns take priority over consumer safety.

It doesn't matter if the issue is food safety or animal welfare—as an industry we must demonstrate that we have declared an all-out war to eliminate any problems regardless of how rare they are. Facts and figures showing continual incremental improvement do little in the face of a story about a young lady whose life was devastated by E. coli or contrasted to a Hallmark video showing actual abuse.

-- Troy Marshall