Costco to test for E.coli earlier

October 16, 2009

Costco to test for E.coli earlier

Readers of our Return of the Local Butcher story yesterday will now glean new insights into the self-protective attitudes of beef suppliers, and their apparent hesitancy to sell to retailers that want to test their product for E.coli.

Why else would it be news that Costco reached an agreement with Tyson to buy beef trimmings for hamburgers, and that the deal allows the large-volume retailer to test the trimmings before they are mixed with those from other suppliers? In the New York Times account, Costco’s food safety director Craig Wilson alleged Tyson had declined to sell trimmings to the company, citing it’s testing.

In response, Tyson said it did not prohibit grinders (such as Costco) from testing, and that some customers did indeed test, the Times reported.

In our view at, the public’s food safety must always take precedence over any single company’s preferred business practice. We applaud Costco for its persistence in making this deal, in creating accountability, and setting a tone for other suppliers to heed in their relationships with other chains.

We understand the fear of slaughterhouses that any grinder’s finding of E.coli could lead to expanded recalls of beef sent elsewhere (since hamburger grinders generally test for E.coli only after it mixes trim from multiple suppliers, the Times said). We think the real solution rests in traceability, in knowing which beef suppliers are clear of fault and which could be suspected sources of any pathogen that may surface. We applaud the Costco effort with Tyson, and urge supermarkets and others to do the same with their beef suppliers. More testing, earlier testing, we’re all for it.

It takes just one leader to set an industry on the right path. Perhaps the opportunity is now—with a motivated Federal government, with anxious partners in the supply chain, and with concerned consumers wondering if the next outbreak will personally affect them—to scrutinize burger production and find better, safer ways to bring this All-American food to market without undue risk to anyone.