February 19th, 2014
01:45 PM ET
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In cooking, the process of clarification entails straining out extraneous muck from liquids so that they might be pure, clear and ideal for consumption. With this series on food terminology and issues we're attempting to do the same.

If it seems food safety issues are on the rise, that's because they are. About 48 million people contract some form of food poisoning each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At any given time the FDA is responsible for watching over some 167,000 domestic food facilities or farms, and another 421,000 facilities or farms outside the United States, according to FDA officials. But there are only about 1,100 inspectors to oversee these facilities, officials told CNN in 2012.

There is a third party audit system, where farms or facilities hire auditors to inspect their premises and provide scores. But some say the audit system is full of conflicts of interest. For instance, shortly before Jensen Farms in Colorado caused a listeria outbreak that killed 30 people, a private inspection company’s auditor gave them a “superior” grade, even after noting that they had no anti-microbial solution in place to clean their cantaloupes.

Sometimes, food slips through the cracks and makes it to the consumer marketplace, as in the recent case of the 8.7 million pounds of meat from Rancho Feeding Corporation (and their associated products like Hot Pockets) that were recalled due to "adulteration." Here's what that means.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair's undercover research for his novel, "The Jungle," exposed the unsanitary conditions of the then-unregulated American meatpacking industry. President Theodore Roosevelt, suspicious of Sinclair's supposedly socialist leanings, commissioned a report from labor commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds, who echoed much of Sinclair's findings.

Under Roosevelt's authority, the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) of 1906 was enacted alongside the Pure Food and Drug Act, giving the USDA jurisdiction over inspection of livestock before and after slaughter, setting sanitary standards for slaughter and processing facilities and allowing routine inspections of the operations by federal inspection. In 1967, the Wholesome Meat Act required these inspections to take place on the state level as well.

A key section of the FMIA lays out the guidelines for what meat "adulteration" entails, and they fall roughly along two lines: adulteration for economic gain, and adulteration that poses a threat to public safety.

First up, economic skullduggery. The FMIA states that food is considered to be adulterated: "if any valuable constituent has been in whole or in part omitted or abstracted therefrom; or if any substance has been substituted, wholly or in part therefor; or if damage or inferiority has been concealed in any manner." This essentially says that truth in advertising is essential; cheap substitutions without disclosure aren't just shady business - they're actually illegal.

Secondly, as in the case of the bungled beef that made its way into the nation's Hot Pockets supply, the FMIA addresses cases when public safety is potentially at stake. In short, if products contain ingredients that are not considered safe for consumption (certain pesticides, specific food colorings or additives), are made with "filthy, putrid, or decomposed substances," have been prepared, packed, or held in a location where they might be "contaminated with filth," are subjected to unapproved radiation or are made from animals that died from causes other than slaughter, they're considered to be adulterated.

In the case of the Rancho Feeding Corporation recall, the 8.7 million pounds of head, testicles (here called "mountain oysters"), lips, blood, feet, stomach, tail and other beef parts that made it into the food system (without being properly inspected) came from diseased and otherwise "unsound" animals that would render them "unwholesome" and unsafe for human consumption. The recall notice from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service indicates a "reasonable probability" that consumption could result in "serious, adverse health consequences or death."

Please attempt to enjoy your lunch.

Further reading:

Here is a breakdown of each of the government agencies in charge of meat safety and communicating said info to the public:

Stands for: Food Safety and Inspection Service
Food Safety Role:: FSIS is the public health agency in the USDA in charge of making sure that the nation's commercial supply of meat (excluding game meats), poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. This is accomplished several ways.

– Inspections: FSIS inspectors inspect animal carcasses before and after slaughter to ensure that no diseases are present, take samples for inspection, monitor the safety of animal feed and medications and enforce regulations such as temperature control, trimming and sanitation procedures.

At egg production facilities, FSIS agents inspect all egg products, with and without added ingredients, including whole eggs, whites, yolks, and various blends - with or without non-egg ingredients - that are processed and pasteurized. FDA, rather than FSIS is responsible for the inspection of egg substitutes, imitation eggs, and similar products.

– Recalls: When FSIS determines that a food item poses a risk to the public, the agency forms a committee to determine if a recall is needed, and collaborates with producers to make sure that the product is contained, and that the public has received adequate warning via the media and the FSIS website. If a risk is posed, but it is determined that a recall is not needed, FSIS will issue a public health alert.

– Labeling: FSIS develops and provides labeling guidance, policies and inspection methods in order to protect consumers from misbranded and economically adulterated meat, poultry, and egg products. This is to ensure that all labels contain accurate, truthful information.

Stands for: United States Department of Agriculture
Food Safety Role: The USDA has primary responsibility for the safety of meat, poultry and certain egg products. The agency's authority is regulated by: the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Egg Products Inspection Act and the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act.

The agency is also responsible for inspecting all meat, poultry and egg products sold in interstate commerce, and re-inspecting imported meat, poultry and egg products to makes sure they meet United States safety standards. The USDA inspects eggs in processing plants before and after they are broken for further processing. FSIS falls under the governance of the USDA.

The USDA is the leader in setting the federal policies that determine national standards for food safety, and has also maintained the Meat and Poultry Hotline (888-674-6854) since 1985. The agency introduced AskKaren.gov in 2004, and mobile Ask Karen on 2011 and claims the combined sites now have a nearly 99 percent self-service rate, meaning that nearly all users are able to find the answers to their questions almost immediately.

Stands for: Food and Drug Administration
Food Safety Role: The FDA regulates all food not overseen by the USDA, which inspects poultry, meat and processed egg products. The FDA has a multi-faceted role in the food safety chain, which can be broken down like this:

– Food defense: The FDA works with other governmental agencies and private businesses to prevent and reduce the risk of malicious attacks on the food system from terrorists, criminals, counterfeiters and others who would seek to harm the public. The FDA provides a tool for private businesses to use to build their own defense plan.

– Recalls: The FDA keeps the public apprised of voluntary recalls by food companies, and recently gained the authority to issue mandatory recalls of foods that have a "reasonable probability" of being adulterated or misbranded and could cause serious illness or death to humans or animals.

– Emergencies: In times of emergencies and weather crises like flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes or power outages, the FDA and CDC provide information and guidelines for food storage and disposal.

– Outbreaks: The Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (A different CORE than the aforementioned CDC FoodCORE) network manages outbreak response, as well as monitoring activities after an illness has been identified. It was designed to streamline efforts across the agency, and develop strategies to prevent and identify future threats to the food system.

– Labeling: The FDA is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically, as well as foods from foreign countries, and is overseen by the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).

Consumer resources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Food and Drug Administration's Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts
FDA Food Safety
United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Education

Salmonella outbreak linked to tainted chicken
Food poisoning: What you need to know

More on food poisoning from CNN Health and all food-borne illness coverage on Eatocracy

Additional reporting by Ashley Hayes, CNN Health

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. sally

    Why are certain parts of a cow considered delicious while others are gross? What is the difference really between ground leg muscle and ground lip muscle? It's all kind of icky when you actually think about it.

    February 27, 2014 at 8:24 pm |
    • Nicholi

      I'm going to assume that you don't eat meat. There is a huge difference. Even between to "good" types of meat (e.g. porter house and filet mignon). The texture, fat content, etc. all have a big impact on the eating experience.

      February 27, 2014 at 10:49 pm |
      • sally

        No, I do eat meat. I'm actually preparing a New York strip for our dinner tonight. I've thought about this quite a bit and I feel that using as much of an animal as we can is the most humane, economical and environmentally sound thing humans can do. And as long as it's clean, safe & fresh as possible– I'm not grossed out at all by the idea that there may be lips or tongues or other offal in the summer sausage. Of course I would never willingly eat another hot pocket (tried one, ONCE) but not because of the meat, but because hot pockets taste awful.

        February 28, 2014 at 5:05 pm |
        • Thinking things through

          I actually go out of my way to buy offal cuts - I'm partial to tongue and heart and sweetbreads. They're extremely tasty, and usually cheaper than most other cuts of meat. I am not so fond of liver, but I do appreciate it in liver pate or liverwurst. I do agree, Sally - why waste?

          What I'm not fond of in processed meats is the inevitable level of sawdust, insect parts, sugars, unpronounceable binders, and "pink slime" that often creep in.

          February 28, 2014 at 5:57 pm |
  2. spike

    did u know conventional vegtables are fertilized with sludge from sewer plants and you could imagine all the stuff that goes down toilets

    February 23, 2014 at 9:08 pm |
  3. Fifi

    I grew up 2mls from a processing plant. I knew what went into hot dogs, bologna and sausage. I have never ate them since. PARENTS: have you read the back of the Hot Pockets container?? What are you actually feeding your children? CRAP wake up, make them food yourself!

    February 22, 2014 at 11:27 am |
  4. Scooterdie

    We'll I am happy to inform all Canadians that my years spent in a beef and poultry plant that produces ready to eat products (chicken wings etc. and non ready to eat items like hamburger patties), are made exactly as you'd hope. Chicken nuggets are 100% breast meat! then breaded. Burgers are made of 100% beef muscles! no tails, bones, or meat from downers. The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) is in factories at least once daily to ensure top quality product makes it to market. Less you think I am defending my employer, the fired me for missing too many days when my mother was terminal, so frankly I hate them, but what I've said is true.

    February 21, 2014 at 6:47 pm |
  5. KawiMan

    I wouldn't put that $hit into my body.

    February 21, 2014 at 4:09 pm |
  6. Chris

    Well, that explains that testicly taste.

    February 21, 2014 at 1:59 pm |
  7. Stosh

    I ate a Hot Pocket once.

    Actually, I was chewing on the cardboard tube in came in. When I switched to the actual "food", I couldn't tell the difference.

    February 20, 2014 at 10:18 pm |
  8. barb'sbarb

    Hot pockets and meat are an oxymoron. By the way, you notice that the little Chihuahua disappeared from the Taco Bell ads - guess what it's in those "tacos."

    February 20, 2014 at 8:34 pm |
  9. Jason

    Hottttt Pocket!

    ~ Jim Gaffigan

    February 20, 2014 at 12:18 pm |
    • Fretboy61

      Thank you for the Jim Gaffigan reference. He was the first idea popping into my head after reading the headline. Also, isn't this the BEST line of the article, "...8.7 million pounds of head, testicles (here called "mountain oysters"), lips, blood, feet, stomach, tail and other beef parts that...would render them "unwholesome" and unsafe for human consumption."

      8.7 million pounds!!! That is a lot of cow lips!

      February 20, 2014 at 12:46 pm |
      • shelley

        Perhaps they misheard christopher walken and think it's "more cowball"?

        February 20, 2014 at 12:59 pm |
        • steve

          I've got a fever! And the only prescription is more cowballs!

          February 23, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
  10. Jen

    Why would you want your cantaloupes to be cleaned with anti-microbial solution? Humans have been eating foods straight from the ground for thousands of years, why do we suddenly need anti-microbial solutions?

    February 20, 2014 at 2:48 am |
    • Ellie Fantt

      Because germ-o-phobes speak louder than common sense.

      February 20, 2014 at 6:43 am |
    • Katrina Wogoman

      Exactly. You'd be shocked how many people have seen me take an apple from a tree (or tomato from the garden) and be appalled when I put it to my mouth. Unless they see a bug or a bird crap on it, it's likely ok. LOL I was raised eating straight from the garden and I am not dead yet!

      February 20, 2014 at 8:03 am |
      • Mr. Grey

        Well if that's how you were raised, I guess it's ok!

        February 20, 2014 at 2:59 pm |
    • Ann

      It's not like you're going to eat the outside part of the cantaloupe anyway ... !

      February 20, 2014 at 9:14 am |
      • craig

        Mellons are fertilized with manure and manure by-products. Harmful bacteria resides in the fertilizer. Slice open a mellon and carry the surface contaminants the the edible part of the mellon. Simple, yes?

        February 20, 2014 at 10:00 am |
    • Dingo

      not that I don't sympathize but.. this is also mass production. harkening back to times when the food was picked and brought to market straight away, there were other issues (actually for a long time human manure was thought to be best for crops which is why the poor in feudal England had to boil all their food into brown mush). nowadays all that product is transported en-mass. the containers are supposed to be thoroughly cleaned but, that works better if you also clean the fruit. if something manages to stay on the truck or pallet for a few runs, for instance, then you can get some nasty bugs.
      unless we move more towards local produce and implement other sweeping changes in our food supply, things like that are better done than not :(

      February 20, 2014 at 2:13 pm |
    • svann

      Because it makes people sick when you dont. This isnt just worry, its fact.

      February 21, 2014 at 10:49 am |
    • eigenklarg

      Have you had a class in biology? Did you pass?

      February 21, 2014 at 3:29 pm |
    • CharlesTox

      Did you bother to read that entire paragraph? When they weren't properly cleaning the cantaloupes, they caused a listeria outbreak that killed 30 people. That's why they need to sanitize the outside of the melons.

      February 22, 2014 at 1:02 am |
    • Giggles

      Eating straight from the tree or garden is not the problem. The problem is mass production. Mega-farming makes food production and food processing a much more capable vector of disease than it would otherwise be.

      A small-farm cantaloupe may harbor the occasional listeria bacterium (among countless benign or benevolent bacteria), but if you extract 10 truckloads of cantaloupe from the same field, listeria on one is tantamount to listeria on all. Wash 'em. Besides, grocery store produce gets handled by who knows how many workers and shoppers.

      A century ago, a single diseased cow might poison a whole family - if they didn't identify it beforehand. Today, a diseased cow could potentially poison thousands, and we have (according to the article) one inspector per 500 facilities. And like the rest of us, most of those facilities are struggling economically, meaning the temptation to cut corners is almost irresistible.

      I am not a germ nut or a health nut. If my french fry falls on the floor, most of the time I will eat it anyway. I also enjoy the occasional hot dog or bologna sandwich. I don't much care what parts of what animals are used to make it, as long as they were healthy and clean. But I wash my fresh food.

      February 22, 2014 at 12:06 pm |


    February 19, 2014 at 11:01 pm |
  12. w

    I tell you those pesky regulations are just getting in the way of profits! What's a little "head, testicles (here called "mountain oysters"), lips, blood, feet, stomach, tail and other beef parts that made it into the food system (without being properly inspected) came from diseased and otherwise "unsound" animals that would render them "unwholesome" and unsafe for human consumption." That MAYBE could lead to "serious, adverse health consequences or death." when it comes to higher profit margins for the investors! Its not like anyone is FORCING you to buy the products and eat them right! All about freedom of choice and taking personal responsibility for the results of YOUR actions! ( Our actions on the other hand should NEVER be regulated nor should we be held accountable for ANY negative consequences of them.)

    February 19, 2014 at 4:29 pm |
    • fredrick wynn

      I always like my meat with extra antibiotics, growth hormones, and textured soy protein.

      February 19, 2014 at 4:50 pm |
    • N. Manti

      How many of the people that purchased said products, would have actually purchased them if they knew that those were the constituents? I'm going to say maybe 10% would have actually gone through with the purchase.
      I think most people reasonably assume that if a product is labeled as "beef" or "steak" that it consists wholly of meat/fat tissue.

      February 19, 2014 at 7:32 pm |
      • What?

        I would say practically all of them, since the majority – if not the entirety – of the products that were recalled were packaged, labeled, and sold as the specific "parts" mentioned.

        February 20, 2014 at 3:46 pm |
    • situationalawareness

      There is a line that is crossed at times, since when one company does something and it makes money then other companies will follow suit. There needs to unfortunately be sanity checking in the market or else money dictates who lives and who dies essentially.

      February 19, 2014 at 10:55 pm |
    • digriz60

      All those things are in hot dogs and sausage anyway. Everything but the oink.

      February 20, 2014 at 12:19 am |
      • What?

        Nice try, but no. Not without being specifically listed on the ingredients label as such.

        February 20, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammperpants ♫♫

      Don't be talking **** about cow stomach. Menudo is friggin awesome.

      February 20, 2014 at 10:32 am |
  13. Arturo Féliz-Camilo

    Reblogged this on Mr. Feliz's Blog (Teacher Arturo).

    February 19, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
  14. Jdizzle McHammperpants ♫♫

    It is meat that has not been beaten.

    February 19, 2014 at 2:06 pm |
    • palintwit

      As opposed to beating your meat ?

      February 20, 2014 at 11:05 am |
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