I hate to sound like a commercial, but this is useful to know. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t need another reason to love Costco. But this adds a level of comfort with their food safety I would be reluctant to assume anywhere else:
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.
Costco did have a recall over mechanically tenderized beef, which is becoming known as a dangerous practice.