Retail Food Safety – Who’s Minding the Meat?
As we reported yesterday in “What’s for Dinner? Piedmontese Beef from Heartland Meats,” slaughterhouses that ship meat across state lines are subject to federally mandated daily inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Processing plants that ship within state boundaries are subject to state inspections that are, by law, at least equally as rigorous as federal inspections. Yet, once the bulk shipments arrive at their final destination — the retail establishment where you shop, there is no standard oversight. — Publisher
According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the operations typically conducted at point of retail sale include breaking up of meat shipments, cutting, slicing and trimming of carcasses, grinding, freezing, and packaging for individual sale. All of these operations offer plenty of opportunity for bacteria to be fruitful and multiply.
Of all the cuts of meat we buy, ground beef represents the highest potential health hazard. To begin with, ground meat is subject to the greatest amount of handling, which increases the risk of exposure to contamination. In addition, ground beef frequently combines meats from countries whose regulatory standards differ from our own.
But should that really pose a problem? The USDA requires any company exporting meat products to the U.S to document that they follow food safety standards that are equivalent to U.S. standards. And, when meat products arrive at the U.S border, they are subject to further inspection.
Consumers receive additional protection from the Country of Origin Law (COOL), which took effect in March 2009. COOL requires many, but not all, retailers to ensure that country of origin information is provided for certain beef, lamb, chicken, goat, and pork products.
If you question whether documentation from a plant in, for example, Uruguay, is completely reliable, or whether border inspections are sufficiently rigorous, you now have an opportunity to opt out of buying their product. Read the label.
Safety in the Meat-Cutting Room
But safety goes far beyond more precise labeling on packaging. What regulatory body is responsible for inspecting meat-cutting rooms at the corner grocery store? I called several local store managers in the Chicago area to find out who audits them, and how often. Apparently, they are instructed not to speak to the media. Corporate Community Relations at Jewel-Osco, which is owned by SuperValu, provided me with the following statement.
At JEWEL-OSCO, the safety of our customers is a top priority. JEWEL-OSCO complies with all local, state and federal regulations regarding food safety and requires our supplier partners to do the same. In addition, we have a comprehensive food safety and quality assurance structure in place throughout the company to ensure that we’re protecting the health and safety of our customers. We have strict cleaning and sanitation standards for our meat department and equipment, and our stores are regularly audited on these standards by third party auditors.
When asked how frequently these regular, third-party audits took place, I got the following response.
“As a matter of company policy, JEWEL-OSCO does not comment on those internal operations. For more information on this issue, and the rules and regulations regarding meat safety at the retail level, please refer to the FDA and the Illinois Department of Public Health.”
My call to the local Costco — a company that is reputed to observe high food-safety standards — was referred to the Craig Wilson, Assistant Vice President of Food Safety and Quality Assurance in the Seattle corporate headquarters.
“The local authority has the final say,” Wilson confirmed, “so there are different regulations in place at almost every store.” For the purpose of standardization throughout the Costco system, the company has adopted food-safety standards that meet or exceed the most stringent FDA regulations. “But we’re harder on ourselves than any regulatory authority that comes into the building,” Wilson said. “Our in-house people are in the meat cutting rooms anywhere from 4 to 10 times a day.”
Levels of Risk
Bruce Jones, Environmental Health Supervisor for the Village of Skokie, Illinois was extremely responsive to my questions. He verified that the authority to enforce health ordinance at the retail level rests with the local health department, which may be a function of the county, township, or municipality, depending on the number of facilities within a given jurisdiction.
These authorities set their own standards with respect to equipment maintenance, temperature, and hygiene requirements of food-handling personnel and frequency of inspection. As one of only eight state-certified, municipal health departments within the State of Illinois, Skokie’s code meets or exceeds Illinois’ rigorous food-code standards.
“Food service facilities are categorized according to degree of risk,” Jones explained. A store where everything that’s sold arrives pre-packaged and there’s no on-site preparation is considered low-risk; moderate risk involves limited food preparation using ingredients that are not typically associated with food-borne illness.
“Grocery stores and restaurants that sell and prepare fresh food have the highest potential for food-safety hazard and are therefore subject to the most frequent inspections,” Jones said. “As a state-certified health department, Skokie adheres to Illinois food code, which calls for a minimum of three unannounced inspections of high-risk facilities annually.”
According to Jones, violations discovered during inspection that can be immediately addressed, such as a temperature violation, can be corrected during the inspection. Otherwise, the facility is given 48 hours to comply, at which time they’re reinspected. If they aren’t found to be compliant with code at that time, they’re shut down. In addition to the unannounced annual inspections, the health department is required to respond to any complaints.
STEPS CONSUMERS CAN TAKE
Your local health department is the final authority that ensures your food is safe. If you have any concerns about the stores where you shop, you may want to consider contacting your local health department to determine whether your grocer is compliant with the local food code. Search for the “Department of Public Health” or “Health Department” in your home state. The state website provides a directory of local health departments, typically in a link on the department home page. A link to a directory of state agencies is included in the resource guide accompanying this article.
You can also ask your store manager what temperature is maintained in the meat-cutting room, how often the equipment is cleaned, and what happens to meat that isn’t sold by the expiration date — there’s a strong likelihood that’s the meat that goes in the freezer case. Your grocer may not want to answer these questions, but you have a right to this information. If you have any reason to think the store is non-compliant, register your concerns at your local public health department.
Regarding ground beef, apart from making an informed decision on your purchase by reading the Country of Origin information on the label, you can protect yourself and your family in other ways, too. You’re safest buying a piece of round steak, chuck, or sirloin and asking your butcher to grind it for you at the counter. Fresh ground beef with a date stamp from a grocer you trust is your next-best option. Are brand-name pre-formed frozen ground-beef patties that went through so many processing variables worth the risk? You have to decide.
Finally and most important, we as consumers are ultimately responsible for our own safety. None of the federal, state, local, or retail regulations in place at every step along the food distribution chain can protect us at home. We need to hold ourselves to the same safety standards we rely on our government agencies to enforce. The buck stops in the kitchen.
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For More Information
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service provides fact sheets that may be of interest:
Kid’s Health provides information about food safety for your family.
The American Dietetic Organization offers Home Food Safety Tips.