Costco’s E. coli-testing procedures rival government inspection efforts

Company checks for contamination at its plant as beef arrives and leaves, but that doesn’t prevent all its problems.

TRACY, Calif.

Costco’s 250,000-square-foot beef plant in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley is not your typical meat plant.

It’s relatively new and spotless. There are high-tech, hand-wash sanitation stations scattered throughout the plant connected to counters that allow plant officials to make sure each employee uses them at least four times daily.

The massive meatball cook room is built entirely of stainless steel. Even the loading docks, where trucks deliver raw beef, is sanitized regularly to prevent contamination.

Plant manager Kevin Smith was a pre-med student in college who majored in physics. And Craig Wilson, who is in charge of Costco’s food quality assurance program, has a long history of working to solve pathogen problems in meat.

“We do not have customers,” explained Doug Holbrook, Costco’s vice president for meat sales. “We have members, and we are responsible to those members, our shareholders and employees to do things differently, to take a different approach.”

The plant has a decided advantage over Big Beef’s slaughter plants because they don’t kill cattle here, so there are no manure-covered hides or intestines to contaminate raw beef products.

But just the same, Costco’s approach is different.

All meat arriving at the Tracy plant comes with a certificate from the supplier pledging that pre-shipment tests showed no E. coli contamination, something other companies are also doing now. But Costco tests it anyway, and if it tests positive, it’s shipped back to the supplier. Less than one percent is shipped back.

Then the finished products — hot dogs, hamburger patties, ground beef, Polish sausages and meatballs — are tested again before they leave the plant.

In fact, Costco officials boast that, until recently, they did more E. coli testing in the company’s lab than the USDA does nationwide at all other beef plants combined.

In discussing the federal meat inspection program, Wilson said, “food safety is an oxymoron...we (Costco) are results-driven and more nimble than the government.” He stopped short of claiming that Costco procedures are more effective than those enforced by federal meat inspectors.

Yet, even companies as safety-conscious as Costco can still have problems. The company got caught up in the massive E. coli recall of Canadian beef in October. A Costco store in Canada sold contaminated steaks from another beef processor that had been tenderized by machines, which penetrate the meat with blades or needles.

Costco officials won’t discuss the incident in detail, but they do point out one critical difference in their mechanically tenderized steaks that sets them apart from much of the rest of the meat industry.

Costco adds labels to such meat, alerting consumers to the fact the steak they’re buying has been mechanically tenderized. The labels note that the USDA recommends that such meat be cooked to 160 degrees — the same suggested cooking temperature as hamburger — to kill any pathogens such as E.coli.