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Lessons For Produce On Beef Recall

When ground beef started being recalled for E. coli 0157:H7 contamination by United Food Group, we ran a piece entitled, Another Unnecessary Beef Recall, pointing out that irradiation is approved for ground beef and that Wegmans has had great success selling irradiated ground beef.

Now that recall has been substantially expanded. It included both branded product and product private-labeled for Kroger, Stater Bros., Trader Joe’s, Fry’s and Bashas. This is a Class I recall , which the USDA explains means:

This is a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.

Now during the spinach crisis, many in the industry, including the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, pointed to the beef industry as a possible model for the produce industry to emulate. And we analyzed that possibility in Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Beef Industry Food Safety Council’s James Bo Reagan.

Yet Bob Stovicek of the Primus Group saw the interest many in the produce trade were taking in the efforts the meat industry had made to improve safety and wrote to us with a warning, which we published under the title Pundit’s Mailbag — Beef Industry Not The Best Guide For Produce Food Safety.

Unfortunately, Bob’s assessment was that the produce industry was more difficult to obtain food safety in than the beef industry — which is why this beef recall is so troubling.

When Bill Marler, the food safety attorney who achieved fame because of his representation of plaintiffs in litigation against Jack in the Box, came to Salinas to do a presentation for the ag community, he entitled it “Put me out of business — Please.”

The title was based on a line in an Op-ed piece that Bill Marler wrote for the Denver Post back in 2002, making the same plea in regard to the meat industry.

Marler, like most food safety experts, including those at the CDC, FDA and USDA, have been under the impression that whatever the flaws in the food safety regimen for beef, very substantial progress has been made. Which is what was indicated in this press release and this government report from 2005:

For the first time, cases of E. coli O157 infections, one of the most severe foodborne diseases, are below the national Healthy People 2010 health goal. From 1996-2004, the incidence of E. coli O157 infections decreased 42 percent….

Several factors have contributed to the decline in foodborne illnesses. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service implemented a series of new recommendations beginning in 2002 to combat E. coli O157 in ground beef… these improvements likely reflect industry efforts to reduce E. coli O157 in live cattle and during slaughter.

Yet now, Bill Marler is focusing on what he sees as unfinished business to make regulations on beef stricter and using his slogan “Put me out of business — Please,” he’s adding a 2007 spin back to the meat industry:

From 2002 until a few weeks ago, I believed that … E. coli illnesses, especially those tied to red meat consumption, were down — way down. A report in 2005 released by the CDC, in collaboration with the FDA and USDA, showed important declines in foodborne infections due to common bacterial pathogens in 2004. From 1996-2004, the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 infections decreased 42 percent.

Now that was, and still seems, significant. We saw the same results in our law firm. From 1993 (Jack in the Box) to 2002 (ConAgra), 95% of the cases in our office were E. coli cases tied to red meat consumption. After 2002, we saw an enormous drop in clients, and more importantly, ill people nationwide. Recalls fell to nothing. That is until six weeks ago. The last six weeks look like the late springs and summers from 1993 to 2002, when hamburger recalls and E. coli illnesses were a large part of every summer — much like vacations and baseball season. Now here is the concerning reality of 2007:

At least 13 people have been confirmed ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after eating ground beef produced by United Food Group sold in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Montana. Over 5,700,000 pounds of meat have been recalled.

Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. recalled 40,440 pounds of ground beef products due to possible contamination with E. coli O157:H7. No illnesses yet reported.

Seven Minnesotans were confirmed as part of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that prompted PM Beef Holdings to recall 117,500 pounds of beef trim products that was ground and sold at Lunds and Byerly’s stores.

Twenty-seven people have been confirmed ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections in Fresno County. The Fresno County Department of Community Health inspected the “Meat Market” in Northwest Fresno, the source of the outbreak.

At least two people were confirmed ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections in Michigan after eating ground beef produced by Davis Creek Meats and Seafood of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The E. coli outbreak prompted Davis Creek Meats and Seafood to recall approximately 129,000 pounds of beef products that were distributed in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Following reports of three Napa Valley children who became sick from hamburger patties sold at a St. Helena Little League snack shack, 100,000 pounds of hamburger (that was a year old) was recalled.

Several people were confirmed ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections in Pennsylvania after eating E. coli-contaminated meat products at Hoss’s Family Steak and Sea Restaurants, a Pennsylvania-based restaurant chain that purchased its meat from HFX, Inc., of South Claysburg, Pennsylvania. As a result of the outbreak, HFX recalled approximately 4,900 pounds of meat products.

I am not sure I know the reason for the new and ominous trend (these are the largest meat recalls in five years), but by anyone’s count these numbers are concerning. What I do know is that these recent outbreaks have all the ugly signs of another national emergency. As a nation — and that includes all federal and local government agencies as well as the private sector — we cannot let the positive trend of the past become another acceptable body count. We need to figure out why this has happened.

My suggestion — if Congress was willing to drop everything in order to investigate the deaths of a dozen cats due to contaminated pet food from China — perhaps bringing all the executives of the companies responsible for this recent rash of outbreaks, recalls and illnesses to Washington for a few days of questioning (under oath) might help us get to the bottom of this.

What does this sudden recurrence of recalls of beef due to E. coli 0157:H7 tell the produce industry? Well in a sense, it tells us that both Bruce Peterson, who has been arguing for an emphasis on traceability, and PMA and United, which have jointly endorsed mandatory federal food safety regulation, are correct.

Despite all these problems with beef, the beef industry has not collapsed. Partly this is the nature of the problem, and even consumers who know about the problem and are concerned about it may feel that with thorough cooking they have the ability to apply their own “kill step.” But it is also because of better traceback than has been available in the produce industry (though Bill Marler argues it can be much better) and, especially because the government, perhaps because it regulates the beef industry and feels the need to defend that system, has reacted with moderation to the problems.

Despite over 52 confirmed illnesses from a much wider group of sources than the spinach E. coli 0157:H7 situation, nobody is recommending consumers not eat beef or even just ground beef.

This moderation on the regulatory side also indicates that the Western Growers Association’s desire to see whatever food safety regulation is adopted reside in the USDA rather than the FDA might work, although there is no question that consumer advocates perceive USDA as a captive of the ag industry. If E. coli 0157:H7 recalls continue, one can expect many calls to get FDA more involved.

Yet the bottom line is that this beef situation is a time for produce industry executives to test their souls. Because the real issue we see here is the question of what our own bottom line is.

The solution proposed for produce — mandatory federal regulation — is, exactly, what the beef industry has and, based on the public reaction to the E. coli 0157:H7 problem on beef this year, if the goal is simply to save the industry, we have a pretty good framework to work with.

It seems like a regulatory structure for produce, similar to what exists for beef, will either increase regulatory confidence or co-opt regulators and, in any case, will lead to a much more reasonable food safety approach.

But… it won’t mean that some consumer won’t die from eating fresh produce.

With beef, to some extent, at least a cattleman could say that consumers were warned to cook the meat thoroughly and insist that restaurants do the same. Although that righteousness is mitigated by the fact that, in fact, very little labeling and promotion goes toward telling consumers to cook beef properly.

In fact the Partnership for Food Safety Education, whose membership consists of 19 associations and non-profits and whose Chairman this year is none other than PMA’s Bryan Silbermann, has a glaring gap in its membership: The egg people are there, the dairy, deli, bakery people are there, the chicken, turkey, pork and produce folks, but there is no participation from the beef industry.

This seems inexplicable, and one wonders if the beef people don’t want to spend money promoting the Partnerships’ recommendations which include:

Cook ground meat, where bacteria can spread during grinding, to at least 160°F. Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) links eating undercooked ground beef with a higher risk of illness. Remember, color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your burgers.

If so, such a hesitancy to promote proper cooking of beef might be shameful but it wouldn’t be surprising. After all in promoting its irradiated fresh ground beef, Wegmans showcases its Vice President of Consumer Affairs on its web site explaining a major benefit of buying irradiated fresh ground beef:

Wegmans Irradiated Fresh Ground Beef is here, only at Wegmans. And for those who remember what a good hamburger used to taste like, we are happily introducing this “cook it the way you like it” alternative to our standard ground beef line-up. In 2002, we were first in the country to introduce this product, but unfortunately the company that supplied the irradiation technology went out of business late in 2003, and left us searching high and low for a new supplier ever since. Thankfully, we have found one.

As a reminder, irradiation is an added layer of protection against a dastardly bacterium called E. coli O157H7. We know that cooking to 160 degrees also protects us from the menace, but the bad news is that those of us longing for a “rarer opportunity,” or for that matter a “medium opportunity” are out of luck, because cooking to 160 transforms what used to be a juicy, flavorful, ground beef eating experience into a long, sad, tasteless chew.

In other words, in a practical sense, the so called “kill stop” in ground beef may be overstated. We’ve put the labels of some of the recalled beef in to illustrate this story — you can see more of the labels and packaging here. Note that you don’t see any reference to the requirements for safe cooking of ground beef. If it is there at all, it is very obscure. This is probably not an accident.

It is a recognition by the beef industry that if consumers really thought about having to cook their burgers so thoroughly and check them with a thermometer, they might buy a lot less of them.

The shame is that with irradiation, there really is a practical kill step that could prevent people from getting sick or dying from E. coli 0157:H7.

Although Bill Marler’s suggestion to drag everyone implicated in the beef outbreak to D.C. is interesting, it strikes us as only likely to produce, at best, incremental improvements in food safety. All we’d get is more inspections, more rigorous oversight, etc.

Irradiation is still unapproved for food safety use on things like bagged spinach. But the beef situation should make the produce industry aware:

Even if we have a great year this year with no known outbreaks, and even if that is true next year and the year after, the beef situation points out that we could have another spinach-like situation in 5 years. Because improved Good Agricultural Practices and improved Good Manufacturing Practices are not a guaranteed solution.

It seems likely that such infrequent outbreaks, combined with industry efforts and a new regulatory structure, mean that the whole industry will not suffer in the future as it did in 2006.

If we want more, however, if to the farmers and processors and retailers, just one guy dying or getting very sick every five years is unacceptable. Even if the industry would survive, then we have to become far more aggressive advocates of irradiation. Otherwise it is not a question of whether there will be a next illness or death caused by fresh produce; it is a question of when. We have to decide if that is acceptable to us or not.

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