Why Talking about the Safety of Your Beef Product is Crucial

Federal inspection at beef plants is mandatory and provided at no charge to the plant. You — the taxpayer — foot the bill. Meat inspection was born from a series of events.

You’ve heard it and read it many times that you need to “tell your story.” As a beef producer, you have a great story to tell about the safety of your product. This is one that I know very few consumers know about but it is significant in regards to beef safety. Whether you sell direct to the consumer using a local processing plant or sell feeder cattle that eventually makes it to a large commercial plant, this story applies to all federally inspected plants.

First, a few basics. Federal inspection at beef plants is mandatory and provided at no charge to the plant. You — the taxpayer — foot the bill. Meat inspection was born from a series of events:

  • Importers not abiding by our standards in the late 1800s;
  • President Teddy Roosevelt’s investigation into meat packers;
  • The awareness created by the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle.”

The result was the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, making inspection is the responsibility of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In addition to federal inspection, some states have their own meat inspection system. Meat inspected in this manner must be held to the same or higher standards as federal inspection. Unlike federal inspection, this meat cannot be sold across state lines.

Carcass grading, on the other hand, is not required but voluntary; as such there is a fee associated with the USDA personnel to grade carcasses. This is why small plants do not provide this service. It is just not economically viable. This does make it a challenge to get a handle on carcass quality in our local plants.

The major part of your story about beef safety is the inspection process that is in place. Most importantly, every animal that comes off the truck is visually inspected by a FSIS inspector — not just some, but each and every one of the 30 million cattle that are processed annually.

That’s pretty amazing. If an animal looks suspect for any reason to the inspector, it is slaughtered separately and automatically sampled. When this “inspector generated sample” is collected, the carcass is held, depending on the results of laboratory testing. If a carcass is found to contain violative residues it is further tested to confirm the initial results. While waiting for the confirmatory results the carcass is cut into primals and frozen. So the notion that any animal can get into the food chain is just plain false.

One would assume this population of suspect animals would be most likely to have violative residues. After all, the FSIS inspector determined that this animal may have been administered antibiotics. However, of all suspect beef and dairy sampled, only seven-hundredths of 1 percent (0.07 percent) of the beef cattle were confirmed containing violative residues (FY 2016).

What a great story to tell! All animals are visually inspected and only 0.07 percent contain violative residues. Now this is not zero percent, and therefore is not acceptable. However, this is good evidence that producers across the country have adopted programs such as Beef Quality Assurance and implemented best management practices to keep the percentage of violative residues in decline.

But there’s more to the story. Each federally inspected plant has to randomly sample carcasses and their tissues for residues (referred to as scheduled sampling). This random sample has been statistically determined to find any evidence of violative residues. For scheduled sampling, in the most recent report, there is no evidence of violative residues in beef carcasses.

You’ve heard the expression: “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you.” Well, in this case, the government has designed a system that is meant to help you as producer assure consumers that your product is safe. Based on the most recent results, you as a producer have stepped up and kept antibiotics out of your product. It’s been a win-win situation. Now go out and tell your story to anyone who will listen.

Reference on sampling: U.S. National Residue Program: FY 2016 Residue Sample Results