'Larry King Live' guests debate ground-beef safety

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY — In the aftermath of a recent article appearing in the N.Y. Times questioning the safety of ground beef, CNN's Larry King Live talk show dedicated its Oct. 12 show to discussing the topic of meat safety. J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the American Meat Institute represented the meat industry. He covered progress industry has made in recent years against E. coli O157:H7 and addressed misinformation regarding ground-beef processing and safety.

Other guests included two families of children who died from E. coli contamination; Bill Marler, personal injury lawyer; Elsa Murano, Ph.D., former U.S.D.A. undersecretary and professor of food microbiology at Texas A&M; two nutritionists (one a vegetarian), Chef Anthony Bourdain, and vegetarian book author Jonathan Safran Foer.

After expressing his condolences to the families who suffered illnesses or lost loved ones due to E. coli O157:H7 contamination in meat, Mr. Boyle pointed out Americans consume 1 billion meals a day. "The vast majority of those [are consumed] safely and enjoyably," he said. "The positive development here is these kinds of tragic illness are decreasing in America. These illnesses are down 60% in the last 10 years. The reason for the reduction of E. coli-related illnesses is because the incidence of that pathogen on our beef products have dropped by about 45% during that same 10-year period."

These incidence decreases are because of investment, technology, research and more sophisticated process control, Mr. Boyle said.

When Mr. King asked if industry was poised to eliminate E. coli, Mr. Boyle replied: "I don’t know if we can actually eliminate it in a raw product. The incidence level is less than one-half of 1% of the beef products. So, it’s already extremely low. There are two steps available to eliminate E. coli in the ground beef supply: irradiation, which is not widely used, and through proper cooking of the product."

A.M.I. member companies have invested tens of millions of dollars over the last 10 years in research programs to make products safer, Mr. Boyle continued. "We shared results in a non-competitive environment so we can spread the knowledge throughout the industry," he said. "Our biggest [members] invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new technology, equipment, interventions to make our meat products safer."

More food-safety testing needs to be done, government and industry need to be open about company test results and consumers should be able to easily find such information online, Mr. Marler said. Mr. Boyle didn’t agree that a private company's test results should be publicly available through the government. "But the non-compliance reports are available through the department because they’re public documents," Mr. Boyle added. "U.S.D.A. conducts 15,000 tests on E. coli each year. Those test results are aggregated and made available to the public."

When Mr. Boyle was asked if he is optimistic improvements will continue to be made regarding reducing E. coli O157:H7 contamination in the meat industry, he answered: "I am, Larry. [But] we need more interventions. Five years ago, the A.M.I. petitioned U.S.D.A. to allow irradiation use on the exterior carcasses....and five years later, the department has yet to issue a rule making to determine if we can utilize that technology."

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