waterThere are so many appalling details in today’s New York Times account of the Topps Meat factory flame-out that it’s hard to know where to begin. Flagrant disregard for safety standards, failure to test batches of ground beef for contamination, repeated citations for “persistent cleanliness problems,” woefully inadequate record-keeping--the list is long, and nauseating. Where, one wonders, were the USDA safety inspectors?

Funny you should ask. They were, in fact, in the Topps processing plant “for an hour or two each day,” as the USDA told the New York Times (emphasis mine.)

Yet, despite their daily presence at the Topps factory, the USDA inspectors never cited Topps for any of these egregious violations of what are, in some cases, only self-imposed safety standards, anyway.

When the story broke earlier this month that the massive recall of E. coli-tainted beef patties had forced Topps to fold, my friend Andrew sent me an e-mail that read, “I bet this company lobbied against regulations and testing practices that would have kept it in biz.”

Maybe they did, but it sounds as if they needn’t have bothered, because the only thing more half-assed than Topp’s sloppy chopping of beef scraps cobbled together from the four corners of Tom Friedman’s flat earth was the USDA’s lackadaisical approach to inspecting this ungodly hodge podge.

Topps issued a statement proclaiming that the company “prided itself on providing quality and safety, which is one reason the company was in business for 67 years…the health and safety of consumers was a top priority at Topps.”

The operative word here is “was.” Topps, which began in 1940 as a small, family run business, was bought out in 2003 by a private equity firm called Strategic Investments and Holdings. As the New York Times reports, the new owners immediately ramped up production:

“The whole time, the whole year, there was a lot more pressure,” Alberto Narvaelzi, a supervisor who worked at Topps for 23 years, said referring to this year.

Late last August, after numerous E. coli cases around the country were linked to Topps ground beef, federal investigators decided to take a closer look, and were shocked, shocked to discover that:

…three different lots of hamburger meat were tainted with E. coli. Moreover, they said, the company’s record keeping was so poor they could not rule out contamination of other lots.

Batches that had been tested by suppliers were mixed with those that were not, officials said. Untested boxes from the freezer were tossed in with the daily grind, as were untested scraps from the plant’s steak line.

All of which leads the New York Times to wonder:

Perhaps the biggest question is why government inspectors did not catch the Topps problems as they were occurring, and whether inspectors in other plants around the country have missed similar problems.

I have a slightly more obvious question: What the hell were the USDA inspectors doing at the Topps plant every day for one or two hours? The New York Times crossword puzzle? Where’s the oversight for an agency that routinely turns a blind eye to the corrosion of our food chain?

Good questions

I'm not expecting to see good answers anytime soon, though. Hardly a confidence-builder.