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Published September 05, 2011, 04:26 AM

Time to re-engineer meatpacking sector

BILLINGS, Mont. — After a July 29 public health alert for ground turkey products issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., the nation’s second-largest beef meatpacker on Aug. 3 issued the second-largest meat recall in history — approximately 36 million pounds of ground turkey products FSIS considers potentially contaminated with a multi-drug- resistant strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.

BILLINGS, Mont. — After a July 29 public health alert for ground turkey products issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., the nation’s second-largest beef meatpacker on Aug. 3 issued the second-largest meat recall in history — approximately 36 million pounds of ground turkey products FSIS considers potentially contaminated with a multi-drug- resistant strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.

Cargill’s recall is classified by FSIS as a Class I recall, meaning the situation is a health hazard where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.

Major recalls

The largest meat recall in history occurred in 2008 when 143 million pounds of beef was recalled because the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in California allowed downer cattle to be slaughtered. FSIS classified this as a Class II recall, meaning the situation was a health hazard where there was a remote probability of adverse consequences from the use of the product. The third- to- seventh-largest meat recalls in history, according to data contained in a 2010 case study completed by the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota, were:

n A 1999 Thorn Apple Valley Inc. recall of 35 million pounds of meat products potentially contaminated with Listeria bacteria at a meat processing plant in Arkansas.

n A 2002 Pilgrim’s Pride Corp./Wampler Foods recall of 27.4 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken sandwich meat potentially contaminated with Listeria.

n A 1997 Hudson Foods, Co. recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef potentially contaminated with E. coli.

n A 2007 Topps Meats Co. recall of 21.7 million pounds of hamburger patties potentially contaminated with E. coli.

n A 2002 ConAgra Foods recall of 18.6 million pounds of beef potentially contaminated with E. coli.

With the exception of the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. recall, the nation’s seven largest meat recalls in history were Class I recalls where serious, adverse health consequences or death were probable. Thus, the current Cargill recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey products is the largest Class I recall in history.

R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard says the cattle farmer- and rancher-members of his organization developed policy calling for divestiture of all but one slaughtering plant by the five major beef and pork packers primarily because of the disproportionate market power the largest meatpackers possess by virtue of their dominant market shares.

“The dominant meatpackers use their superior market power to lower livestock prices they pay to U.S. farmers and ranchers, which has forced hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers out of business,” Bullard says.

‘Wake-up call’

But now, according to Bullard, consumers should be equally concerned with the huge market shares of the major meatpackers.

“When a problem at one major packing plant can disrupt the food safety and food security for millions of consumers, it’s time to reengineer our meatpacking sector,” he says. “If we don’t immediately begin reversing this trend towards more and more concentration in the meatpacking sector, which leads to the centralization of our nation’s food supply, our food supply will become increasingly vulnerable to widespread contaminations that could lead to serious and widespread health consequences and food shortages.

“This latest meat recall is a wake-up call highlighting the very real danger of our ongoing abandonment of a widely dispersed food production and food processing system. We are fast moving toward a corporate-controlled, centralized food production and food processing system that is inherently more vulnerable to failures that could adversely affect the food safety and food security for millions of U.S. consumers,” he adds

Editor’s Note: R-CALF USA (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. cattle industry.

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