Navigating Our Way Out of the Jungle: Modernizing Meat Inspection

A fast-paced world requires modern meat inspection processes, but are we lagging in our efforts?

“They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

The date June 30, 2017, marked the 111th anniversary of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which was a revolutionary legislative act to regulate the private meat industry and restore public confidence. What triggered such a shift after decades of poor industry practice? The year prior, in 1905, a book by Upton Sinclair was published in a series, which would then be published in entirety in early 1906. The Jungle brought forth the unsavory and grotesque underbelly of the American meat system. Although this may not have been the focus of his book, readers took away from it that their trusted source for meat was corrupt and lacked safety mechanisms. Within the year, the Federal Meat Inspection Act was established.

Unfortunately, since then, food safety has struggled to keep up with the pace of both farms and consumers. Minimal changes to the law and a shorter farm-to-table time frame mean that the meat and poultry system is woefully outdated. “As a result, despite vast changes in the health risks that these products pose to consumers, the federal meat and poultry oversight system remains designed for threats that it faced many years ago, not those that exist now and into the future. The system also does not adequately employ new technologies, such as the latest advances in microbiological testing, to improve food safety,” Sandra Eskin, Director of Food Safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts wrote in a recent article.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is working to identify not only these weaknesses but also strengths within the industry. If 2 million Americans are sickened each year because of contaminated meat and poultry, that should serve as a substantial indicator that in the United States, we are still struggling to ensure safe consumption. Taxpayers fund roughly $1 billion annually for meat and poultry inspection; however, globalization and increasingly complex distribution make these efforts extremely difficult.

Pew plans to combine several expert recommendations and inspections to create a comprehensive series of reports and best practices that will bring the meat and poultry oversight system into the modern era. Incorporating dialogue across the industry, through public health advocates, food safety scientists, meat and poultry companies, or food retailers will allow for a holistic approach to this incredibly complex problem.

A June 2017 report from Pew and Cargill, an American privately held global corporation based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, highlighted some of these concerns and established an open dialogue to develop recommendations. They addressed the need to establish a risk-based oversight system, which would incorporate data from across the food-safety system. The guidance also included better risk communication, a modernized approach to slaughter inspection that would include current technology and pathogen-specific appropriate levels of protection, among other components.

Food safety is a challenging dilemma as efforts must facilitate industry growth and globalization without neglecting safety. The significant impact to human health highlights how important it is to get inspection and response right the first time. At an economic level, food-safety failures in the meat and poultry industry can be devastating. For example, a case of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in the United States could result in an outbreak that would halt export and could cost $6.5-$21 billion, annually. There is also concern that this vulnerability and the economic impact of such an event could inspire acts of food terrorism. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand the vulnerability and potential for disruption that an act of agroterrorism could cause, so that we may better defend against it.

Efforts to address seriously outdated and subpar food-safety practices within the meat and poultry industry, like those from the Pew initiative, are vital to ensure the quality and safety of the US food supply. The 1906 Meat Inspection Act was a revolutionary moment for the food industry, pointing to the importance of safety and health in an industry that had neglected both. Unfortunately, we are still lagging behind in our efforts and modernization is vital to ensure the safety and security of the meat and poultry industry moving forward.