Cowboy wisdom holds that the first thing you should do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.

Good advice, but it's advice some in the beef industry seem unable to follow on a number of different issues. Take food safety, for instance. There we were, rocking along throughout much of 2007, thinking E. coli O157:H7 was behind us. The incidence of the pathogen in beef was trending steadily downward — in fact, a 72% drop since 2000. Most everyone thought we had the E. coli problem pretty well whipped.

Then came October and the Topps recall. By the time it was done, the recall totaled 21.7 million lbs. of frozen ground beef patties produced over a year's time, and Topps was out of business.

While Topps may have hung up its shovel, the hole it left behind has the rest of the industry clawing to get out of the mud. In short, the Topps recall put the industry's food safety efforts back on the front page and back in the front sights of legislative and regulatory sharpshooters.

What happened?

The recall by Topps Meat Co. of Elizabeth, NJ, started out small, with a Sept. 25 recall of three day's production. In early October, it was expanded to 21.7 million lbs. of frozen ground beef patties produced between Sept. 25, 2006 and Sept. 25, 2007.

A full year's production was recalled because the company failed to follow its own hazard analysis critical control plan (HACCP) and carried over one day's supply of raw materials to the next, mixing batches of ground beef, industry experts tell BEEF. With no clean break between lots, it was impossible to isolate the batches that carried the E. coli contamination.

The fallout

While consumer reaction to the recall was muted, the response in Washington, D.C. was not. Almost immediately, politicians jumped on the media exposure the recall afforded by promising legislation to address the issue. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was hotly criticized.

“It would appear,” observes Jay Truitt, head lobbyist in the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Washington office, “this recall has blown a hot breath of air on some smoldering coals over potential food safety legislation. There's no doubt in our minds that we're going to have to really step it up to explain what we're doing, what we have been doing, re-explain how our processes and systems work, and make people feel good about food safety from a political perspective.”

It won't be easy. Washington insiders say there's been a building concern over food safety from a couple of key players. One of those is Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who chairs the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. Shortly after the Topps recall, she issued an outline of a plan to transform food safety in the U.S.

“DeLauro is one of the most tenacious and feisty members of Congress,” Truitt says. “When she puts her mind to something, she generally gets something out of that. She may not get everything she wants, but she's going to get something.”

One of her allies in an effort to further regulate food safety is John Dingell (D-MI), who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He's considered the single most powerful member of the House of Representatives.

“Some actions are going to be taken in the House,” Truitt says. “It's a bit harder to see what might happen in the Senate. But the House has shown that when it sinks its teeth into something, it doesn't let go.”

Truitt says it will be impossible to get out of the current Congress, which concludes at the end of next year, without having a food-safety battle. “This stuff is already getting some traction. Our charge is to re-explain and re-educate people about the value of the systems we have in place and to talk about food safety in a fair and balanced environment. And to create that environment,” he says.

Then there are the agencies

Truitt says the impending legislative battle is unfortunate because it will be couched as a food-safety battle when it's really a regulatory battle.

“I think it might re-ignite the battle over who's ultimately responsible for food safety and what that structure might be,” he says. “It will re-ignite the discussion over a food-safety czar. It will ignite a battle over whether or not our regulatory framework is ‘failing.’ And it's not. The U.S. has the safest, most wholesome food supply in the world. But you know what? In America, just being safe is not enough. We want to be perfect.”

USDA's FSIS also has stepped into the fray, taking actions in the aftermath of the Topps recall to shore up its side of the food-safety effort. Among other things, it's stepped up the amount of testing it does on both domestic and imported beef product and is ratcheting down on plants that slaughter cattle and process beef. Using a longer and more intensive checklist of hurdles that plants must overcome, FSIS in November began a process of better tracking a plant's production controls.

And there will be more to come. In January, FSIS will use a more sensitive test, able to detect lower levels of E. coli O157:H7. That means FSIS will find even more positive samples than they found this year.

Traceable food supply

According to Truitt, the Topps recall also leapfrogged the industry from a discussion of animal ID that had quieted to nearly a whisper to a discussion about food-system traceability. Even though animal ID isn't a food-traceability program, Truitt says policymakers are looking for ways to enhance traceback. Many have been given the false impression that animal ID could be an answer.

While policymakers are looking at traceability from one perspective, he says consumers are looking for a food system that can tell them what was done to their food, when and by whom. “That doesn't mean every tiny step,” he says. “Consumers don't want to know that. But they want to know that somebody knows. And that means we're going to have to do things a little bit differently in our systems.”

James Marsden agrees. The Kansas State University beef-safety expert says while it's not likely that traceability will go back to the individual animal, particularly in the case of trimmings that are processed into ground beef, more traceability within the processing and production channels is imminent.

“What I'm talking about is having the knowledge and provable traceback to the raw materials that went into the ground beef. That may require some rethinking in the ways things are done,” he says.

That rethinking began shortly after the Topps recall. “Some recalls just aren't preventable,” Marsden says. “But to go from a small, manageable recall to something where a whole year's production is recalled, that is preventable.”

It's a matter, he says, of companies staying diligent and closely monitoring their programs. “It's a matter of companies working to make sure they have the right systems in place, the right definitions for lot, that they have aggressive testing in place for both raw materials and finished product, and have complete traceability for defining their lot. Believe me, there's a whole lot going on right now on the processing side to get that done,” Marsden adds.

Truitt believes the industry knows more about how to handle E. coli and other food-safety challenges than the federal regulators. And he thinks the solution to the long-term battle to satisfy consumers' desires for perfection in their food is to create an environment where all the players — private industry and government regulators — can address those problems.

“But the likelihood of that is slim to none, because government almost never looks toward industry for those solutions. We have to fight our way into that role and that's what we intend to do,” he says.