Reality Check: Food Companies Beef Up E. Coli Testing to Fuel Marketing Hype

Talk about catering to the food industry's public relations agenda. This NYT article already presents a problem just with its headline wording [emphasis added]:

Food Companies Act to Protect Consumers from E. Coli Illness

The recent move by food retailer Costco Wholesale and lean beef manufacturer Beef Products Inc. (BPI) to expand bacteria testing requirements with additional E. coli strains seems to make sense, considering the countless lethal outbreaks that continue to wreak havoc here and abroad. But don’t get it twisted. It’s merely an act to gain a competitive advantage and appeal to consumers' growing concern regarding foodborne illness. I wouldn't identify the companies' motivation as protecting consumers so much as gaining profits off them or, in this case, publicity.

So yes, these food giants have beat the government to the punch in addressing the “Big Six” E. coli strains. But I caution consumers not to hold them up on a pedestal when customer safety isn’t the driving factor. In fact, the move serves as a smoke screen, leading us further away from what is a pressing issue to food safety.

The article, unsurprisingly, fails to mention another practice BPI carries out extensively in order to over-emphasize its reputation as a food safety leader -- dousing beef "trimmings" (aka the leftover cuts from the slaughterhouse) with ammonium hydroxide, or ammonia. As seen in the film "Food Inc.," the ammoniation process forces workers to be heavily protected when handling the meat product, which makes its way into most fast food hamburgers.

kit_foshee
Kit Foshee

"The beef that you're eating is treated with Mr. Clean," remarked former BPI employee-turned-whistleblower Kit Foshee at FIC's conference in February. Foshee was terminated in 2001 for not participating in what he considers BPI's inflated claims. "They want you to believe that they're all about food safety."

A video clip from the conference (start watching at 35:50) shows Foshee listing off the food safety awards shown on BPI's website before detailing the company’s distorted data given to USDA as well as attempts to avoid regulation.

This is the same company portrayed in the NYT as a saving grace in the fight against E. coli? Clearly they want to continue to beef up their reputation in food safety. The fact that the media is eating it up shows that BPI knows exactly what it's doing. Food industry propaganda at its best.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

 

Comments (2)

  1. Dr. Theno:

    Thanks for voicing your concerns. I am pleased to see you’ve taken an interest in our FIC blog.

    To your first point, it is accurate to say that Mr. Foshee was unhappy working at BPI -- but it is clear from his speech at a FIC conference earlier this year, as Sarah linked to above, that he wasn’t happy about ammoniated beef being present in BPI products (starting ~ 35:45). With regard to Mr. Foshee’s whistleblower status, I am not aware of a court ruling that declared Mr. Foshee “not a whistleblower.” I can say that Mr. Foshee did “blow the whistle” on BPI’s meat ammoniation process – a process that yields a questionable and potentially unsafe meat product that is being served in school cafeterias nationwide.

    As for your second point I, and FIC, applaud companies that take steps to produce safe, wholesome foods. But we also support transparency and the public’s right to know, and as Sarah’s blog already suggests, I think there is good reason to take a second look at BPI’s motives.

    Amanda Hitt
    Director, Food Integrity Campaign
  2. As a long time food safety advocate myself I appreciate GAP's work in protecting the safety of our food supply. But I must make two points regarding this post. First, Kit Foshee is not a whistleblower, he is an unhappy former employee who was terminated for not supporting a product buy back program, he opposed it for financial reasons. His quotes are not accurate regarding the product nor the issues at hand. His wrongful termination case was decided for BPI and the court declared that he did not meet the criteria of a whistleblower.
    Second, both BPI and Costco are doing these new programs voluntarily at great cost and risk to themselves.It takes companies to pioneer these efforts to get them commercialized and into everyday use. They should be supported not criticized for stepping forward to make our food supply safer.
    Respectfully Submitted, David M Theno

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