The metropolitan media has been found wanting over its coverage last week of claims that Australian beef was the source of contamination in an E.coli detection incident in the US state of South Carolina.
Few, if any of last week’s reports in city media were prepared to acknowledge that no official confirmation of the source has yet been received, and there are distinct grounds for suspicion that it may have come from elsewhere.
As recently as Friday, ABC radio was saying, “The revelations come as quarantine officials in Australia and the US try to determine how a consignment of Australian beef became contaminated with E coli bacteria.”
Some Australian TV media on Thursday broadcast calls from US fringe consumer groups to ban Australian beef exports to the US.
Since then, however, some city media have filed more accurate versions of events.
Writing in Saturday’s Australian under the headline, “Agency doubts Aussie beef to blame for scare” Sue Neales wrote: “Authorities have reacted angrily to claims by the US that Australian beef is to blame for a food contamination scare in South Carolina.”
“Department of Agriculture meat inspection and food biosecurity division head Greg Read said yesterday that the source of the latest E. coli bacterial contamination in mince meat was unclear.”
“Mr Read conceded three consignments of frozen Australia beef had already been rejected at US ports this year because of E. coli contamination. But he said those consignments, each made up of 175 25kg boxes of frozen unground beef trimmings, had never entered the US and were unrelated to the latest contamination.”
He said Australia would not blindly accept blame for the three tonnes of contaminated mince and hamburger patties detected by South Carolina meat inspectors last week, which he pointed out had been blended with US domestic raw material.
“We are still not at all satisfied that the origin of the product was Australian,” Mr Read told The Australian.
Beef Central has consistently cast doubt on the accusation that Australia is the source of the SC contamination episode, since we broke the story last Tuesday. No formal investigation outcome has yet been delivered by the US Food Safety Inspection Service.
On Friday afternoon, the Australian Meat Industry Council issued a statement on the E. coli incident, again re-stressing that the source of the contamination has not yet been verified as Australian.
Here is the statement in full:
DAFF Biosecurity recently received notification from US authorities that ground beef in the US had tested positive for Escherichia coli O157:H7 and that Australian beef had been implicated in the detection. Following tracing of the export consignment it was confirmed that the implicated Australian product was found negative through the Australian E.coli 0157:H7 testing program prior to export and complied with the relevant US testing program.
The consignment met US import requirements and was cleared by US border authorities.
Discussions are ongoing with all parties concerned while confirmation of the source of the contamination is being progressed. Contamination can occur at any part of the supply chain.
The US processing plants associated with the detection issued a recall of the product. The recall action was voluntary and did not occur as a result of formal action by US authorities.
The Australian Meat Industry takes extremely seriously customer concerns about food safety and continually strives to improve our food safety system and the integrity of Australian meat. We work closely with the Australian Government to ensure that Australia meets community and customer expectations world-wide.
The government has a direct role inspecting and verifying compliance against strict performance standards on processing sites. This system utilises the presence of a full-time government veterinarian assessing the incoming stock and overseeing the production and inspection process, and a full-time government Food Safety Meat Assessor inspecting each carcase.
The Food Safety Meat Assessor is assisted in the routine inspection tasks by as many additional official inspectors as required. It is a scientifically-based inspection system which underpins the production of wholesome meat and meat products. The system is subject to external audits from Senior Australian Government veterinarians and by foreign officials representing many of our major trading partners.
All meat produced in Australia for export and domestic consumption remains safe. We produce meat for the world to the highest quality and hygiene standards and our industry and regulatory systems continue to respond and adapt to the ever-increasing international food safety demands which are becoming increasingly focused on microbiological issues.
The Australian meat industry continues to have an enviable food safety reputation world-wide.
Australia introduced a new self-regulated meat inspection system last October, called the Australian Export Meat Inspection System (read Beef Central’s original AEMIS launch story, “Ludwig launches new AQIS deal,” here).
By February this year, at least 45 export-licensed abattoirs were operating under AEMIS, which replaces AQIS inspectors with company-based inspectors, called AQIS Authorised Officers. Some exporters continue to use the old AQIS inspection model.
It is understood the southern Australian plant being implicated in the E. coli episode operates under the pre-existing AQIS Government meat inspection system, not its replacement, AEMIS.