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How to start investigating health and safety problems at meat producers near you

How to start investigating health and safety problems at meat producers near you

Picture of William Heisel
How to start investigating health and safety problems at meat producers near you
(Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)

A friend of mine was recently stopped at the airport in Houston and forced to throw away some salami he was trying to bring back from Rome. 

It's a bit silly when you stop to think about all the meat products that are produced and distributed every day without an ounce of scrutiny from a regulatory agency. As a reporter, you can do your part by both exposing the problems that are discovered by regulatory bodies and exposing the big gaps in the regulatory safety net.

I wrote recently about salmonella and the role of farms in the spread of that particular bug and others. Now let’s talk about meat wholesalers and slaughterhouses. 

If there’s a meat wholesaler or slaughterhouse in your vicinity, find out when it was last inspected, what inspectors found, and, most importantly, what those inspectors were able to see and not see. 

Where should you begin? 

A good start is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s list of meat producers. Chances are there’s one not too far from you.

Let’s first run through the terms that the USDA uses. They have four different categories in the chain that links farm to table: “Slaughter,” “Processing,” “Import” and “ID warehouse.”

The first few are simple. The last one, an ID Warehouse, is basically a building where the government identifies the meat as the type of meat that the meat companies purport it to be. Remember that meat includes poultry and eggs, too. 

I did a search for Trenton, New Jersey, and came up with seven facilities. A broader search for “NJ” in the “state” column, yielded more than 200 facilities, including my favorite name of all time, “Viva La Mamma USA” in South Hackensack. 

Now, there’s nothing in this list that tells you a facility did anything right or wrong. What you’re looking for are other reports that refer back to this list. Again, patience is a virtue.

One of the more interesting lists where these names show up is the Residue Repeat Violators List. With a name like that, it has to be good, right? Note that there are actually two lists, one intended for the government inspectors and one intended for the companies themselves. These lists each have short user guides, which are worth reading. The one for the inspectors says, for example:

When a producer or source has more than one residue violation in the last 12 months they will appear on this list. (Inspectors) can then determine whether the violations were found in the same establishment (i.e., Same Source Supplier) or different establishments by comparing the producer or source to the establishment in the second column.

In the most recent reporting period, it seems either inspectors in Pennsylvania were more active or producers in Pennsylvania were simply more prone to having meat full of drugs and other residues. Of the 18 facilities in the repeat violators list, five were in Pennsylvania. The rest were scattered around Texas, California, New York, and other states. 

And what did the inspectors find:

Well, at Gold Medal Packing in Rome, New York, they found meat that tested too high in neomycin. At JJ Meat Co. in Madera, California, they found meat high in enrofloxacin and oxytetracycline. And at H&B Packing Co. in Waco, Texas, they found meat with residual traces of sulfadimethoxine

Notice a pattern?

These are all antibiotics. And so your story about what’s going on with the meat producers in your area is also about the larger problem of antibiotics in the food supply. And when you find these lists on the website, download them. Because they will disappear. As far as I can tell, there is no back catalog available online for these reports.

That’s not by accident. The guide to the list intended for meat producers says:

(USDA’s Food Inspection and Safety Service) has been asked whether producers can be removed from this list in less than 12 months. For example, would FSIS consider removing a producer if the producer goes three consecutive months without any new violations attributed to them? The Agency is considering this issue and will announce how it will proceed with respect to this matter in the Federal Register.

That’s a story all on its own. Industries often put pressure on agencies to drop damning data and purge records from public view. What you likely will have to do to find past information about companies that interest you is put in a public records request with the agency. 

You can also check out the USDA’s page of datasets for a broader search. I started with the “Raw Beef Components Sampling” data and found more than 3,000 businesses in the dataset for the most recent data posting.

Let me warn you. Once you start going down this path, it’s a dizzying array of information. It will require some patience on your part and some trial and error. But if good stories were easy to come by, then everybody would be producing them. Let me know what you find by pinging me on Twitter @wheisel.

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