In the last decade, the number of recalls the US government made for unsafe meat increased. And not just by a little.
Data collected and shared in a new report (pdf) by the US Public Interest Research Group show the number of Class I meat recalls made by the US Department of Agriculture increased by some 85% since 2013, from 53 to 98. That’s the most hazardous kind of recall, carrying a reasonable chance that consumption of the food could lead to illness and even death. Recalls in the Class II category rose by 52%, from 17 to 26, and Class III recalls dropped from 5 to 0.
The number of recalls in a given year only tell part of the story, since volumes vary with every recall. That tally fluctuates from year to year, but in 2013 the US recalled just over 13 million pounds of meat and poultry. In 2019, the government recalled more than 20 million pounds.
There are a couple ways to consider food recall data. An optimist might argue that the increasing number of Class I meat recalls indicates a food safety system that’s working—that we’re simply getting better at identifying the sources of dangerous food and squelching them before they cause too much damage. A cynic might argue that the bad food should never have made it to market at all. They’d say it’s a sign of too little oversight of food before it hits grocery stores.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Monitoring the national meat supply is no small feat. It’s a mixture of boots-on-the-ground work by federal inspectors, high-tech testing for pathogens, and trust that the companies who run the processing plants are doing their due diligence to ensure only the safest food is released to consumers.
But the recall trends indicate there’s a lot of room for improvement. That could frustrate the Trump administration, which has recently deregulated aspects of the food safety apparatus. In October 2018, the administration announced it was offering poultry plants waivers to increase line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute, a policy change made even after the number of Class I recalls had spiked.
To understand that change, imagine the inside of a slaughter facility. The animals are killed and then broken into parts. Those parts then go down a mechanical line, where trained government inspectors are charged with looking at each one as it passes by, hopefully catching any defects or abnormalities. If they spot something suspicious, the carcass is removed and it won’t go to market.
Increasing line speeds makes the job harder for meat inspectors to catch carcass defects. Even still, the administration decided in September 2019 to also relax standards for pork processors. Under that industry’s revised plan, hog slaughter plants can opt into a system in which they can hire their own people to replace some—but not all—federal inspectors. In addition, the government removed any cap on line speeds.
In its report, US PIRG said that while the number of poultry recalls in 2019 was similar to previous years, the 17 million pounds of poultry and egg products recalled last year tripled the average of the previous six years.
Finding an answer to this problem isn’t going to be easy. From a regulatory standpoint, it may require tightening regulations again, or finding new, more advanced ways to test meat before it goes to market.
It could even resurface a proposal the Trump administration floated back in June 2018, which involved roping all the government’s food safety expertise into one agency, as opposed to splitting the duties between the Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees most non-meat products through the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the USDA, which has oversight over meat. That idea could draw bipartisan support, even if it would upend how food has been kept safe in America for decades.