By Frank G. Vice, DVM, BS Pharm
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional act creating the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This act This act was designed, among other things, to inspect and ensure the safety of the food we eat. In those early years, there was very little government oversight of the rapidly growing beef industry. These were the Civil War years, which occupied most of President Lincolns time. However, he was committed to developing America and its prosperity through agriculture. During the mid- 19th century, consumer protection and meat inspection were lagging behind beef industry growth. Diseased cattle were being imported and shipped, ultimately mixing with healthy cattle. Government regulation and surveillance of this new industry was limited. America was growing and the railroads were expanding, providing more rapid transportation of cattle to market locations.
Increased availability of cattle and no industry oversight allowed an unregulated meat packing industry to expand to meet the market’s demands. The U.S government was aware that unsanitary processing plants were delivering tainted and adulterated meat to consumers. However, the beef market was ready for growth and improved cattle transportation could deliver beef throughout the nation. As the beef industry grew it became more isolated, preventing all consumer participation or general knowledge of the meat preparation process. Shipment of potential diseased cattle, especially through importation, represented a health risk and economic loss to a fragile nineteenth century economy. In response to collective concerns by veterinarians, beef associations, and the general public, the USDA urged Congress for legislation to monitor the shipment of cattle. In 1884, a legislative act was signed by President Chester Arthur establishing the USDA Bureau of Animal Industry. This legislation was designed to monitor the health of cattle, especially during shipment, since these animals were ultimately intended for human consumption. It was through the slow pace of government that increased industry guidelines continued to strengthen. As the 19th century closed and the 20th century dawned, consumer demand was changing. Laws were written requiring the USDA and the Bureau of Animal Industry to inspect livestock, but inspection of meat packing facilities and stock yards remained absent. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt read a book titled “The Jungle”, written by Upton Sinclair, which fictionally documented meat processing throughout the Chicago meat packing market. This book described the dangerous and unsanitary beef processing procedures of beef facilities throughout Chicago. It helped convince President Roosevelt to sign The Pure Food and Drug Act and The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), both of which became law on the same day.
These new laws helped to create a more wholesome beef industry. The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) specifically prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded meat and meat products, further ensuring meat products were processed under sanitary conditions. The FMIA established major sanitary requirements for the meat packing industry with mandatory inspection of livestock before and after slaughter in an attempt to maintain meat quality and wholesomeness. In addition, the act also required the USDA to inspect and monitor slaughter and processing operations, enabling the USDA to enforce food safety regulatory requirements. USDA beef inspections are based on nationally uniform standards of quality. This guarantees that no matter when or where a consumer purchases a package of beef, it must have met the same inspection criteria in all commercial locations. If the beef has passed its inspection for wholesome consumption, it is stamped with a federal purple stamp to certify the federal inspection is finished. Consumers depend on these food safety inspectors.
The Meat Inspection Act of 1906, made it illegal to mislead or misrepresent any aspect of the inspection process. Originally, the USDA’s traditional meat inspection was based on “organoleptic” examinations in which inspectors made decisions of beef wholesomeness, based on smell, sight, feel, and touch. However, the vast majority of foodborne diseases occurring today are caused by microorganisms that cannot be detected visually. Additional USDA guidelines required closely evaluating cattle for potential zoonotic diseases such as tuberculosis, since this disease has identifiable lesions that can be detected visually. Meat inspection legislation and procedures have adjusted through the years, keeping pace with changing methods of beef production, slaughter, processing, and consumption. Each progressive legislative act required closer inspection and stronger accountability from manufacturers in an effort to prevent miss-branding or adulterating any consumer products. As the years progressed, each new Presidential administration would enact legislation attempting to improve surveillance of the beef industry. It became a government pledge to inspect and protect the public food supply.
In 1946, the scope of inspection was expanded with the passage of The Agricultural Marketing Act which provided the USDA with the authority to inspect and certify the quality and condition of agricultural products. In August 1958, due to public response, Congress implemented the National Humane Slaughter Act which was enacted to improve the way animals were prepared for processing. Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), the vital services provided by the food safety inspectors have touched the lives of almost every citizen in America. The safety of all food, particularly meat, is a critical public concern requiring the involvement of academic science, political and governmental regulatory programs, and the economics of meat production. To meet future demands of food safety for public health, the USDA is moving toward a more inclusive inspection system that will continue to rely on science-
based policies. The USDA’s ongoing progressive attitude allows food service inspectors to anticipate and quickly respond to food safety challenges before they negatively affect public health. Common bacteria are very dangerous food borne pathogens and are considered in USDA’s safety recommendations. These recommendations are designed to minimize the likelihood of harmful bacteria contaminating raw meat. A part of these recommendations include USDA safe handling instructions, printed with the statements that include: keep meat refrigerated or frozen, thaw in refrigerator or microwave, wash all working surfaces and utensils, cook thoroughly, keep hot foods hot and refrigerate leftovers immediately. No raw food product is totally sterile. Contamination and recontamination may occur. Therefore, consumers must be aware of proper handling, storage, and preparation practices for meat.
Continued modernization of the beef inspection system will enable the USDA to meet ever-changing threats to public health. New laboratories have been established to develop new testing methods for meat and meat products, even expanding beyond bacteria to test for foreign substances like insecticides and antibiotics. Today, rapidly changing technologies and increasing public expectations dictate a major reevaluation of inspection systems and philosophies. It has been suggested that it is not economically and logistically feasible to achieve total freedom from all microbial and chemical contamination in meat following inspection. This statement is contrary to the goal of the USDA, which feels the public deserves effective national policies that provide a degree of assurance of minimal food-related exposure to microbial pathogens, chemicals, and antibiotics. For the past several years, the FDA and USDA have been taking steps to change how antimicrobials are legally used in food-producing animals. It is felt that antibiotics added to feed for beef cattle production should be regulated by implementing some restrictive controls on their use. The FDA is confident that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics when they are constantly exposed in cattle feed.
In close collaboration between the USDA, FDA, feed companies, the medical system and veterinarians, a new control measure was implemented. This control measure is referred to as The Veterinary Feed Directive, designed to ultimately restrict the use of antibiotics as supplemental feed additives. By reducing the overuse of antibiotics in cattle feed, antibiotic resistance would slow down, preserving critical antibiotics for human therapeutics. In addition, antibiotic residue would be reduced in the beef we eat. This critical concern alerted the FDA to reduce the agricultural use of these important antibiotics. Inspecting beef for residue antibiotics requires the USDA to alter traditional meat inspection methods to make use of modern technology in order to better monitor levels of microorganisms, residues of therapeutic drugs, and agricultural chemical and environmental pollutants that cannot be detected by visual inspection. The sheer volume of carcasses needing inspection requires ever-increasing numbers of trained and physically able inspectors. Much of the actual meat processing evaluation is conducted by a meat inspector trained to comply with federal regulations determined by the USDA. Anyone wishing to follow this career tract is expected to have a bachelors’ degree with an emphasis in agriculture, or have one year of a job related experience. The USDA employs veterinarians as additional inspectors to monitor food processing centers as well as transportation sites and ports of entry. The USDA attempts to ensure food safety even though the inspection process has become more sophisticated.
The author would like to thank the following educational sources for their literary contribution, “FDA Voice”, June 2015, Veterinary Feed Directive, Michael Taylor: “Historical Overview of Beef Production and Beef Organization in The United States” August 16, 2012 C. E Ball: “Condition in Meat Packing” Dictionary of American History 2003