In recent years, most supermarket retailers have gone to great lengths to protect themselves and their shoppers from contaminated ground beef. While it may be scientifically impossible to completely eliminate foodborne pathogens, food-safety experts suggest that retailers should concentrate their efforts on controlling the critical distribution points under their jurisdiction, those that provide the greatest chance for pathogens like E. coli to contaminate product.
At store level, there is employee training, more sophisticated handling procedures, improved equipment and -- in some cases -- a switch to outsourced, case-ready product. But, no matter how effective these components are in maintaining the integrity of the beef, it's the last part of the food-safety equation that continues to challenge retailers: consumer education.
Experts have developed a simple series of precautions that have become mantra: Do not let raw ground beef come into contact with any other foods during preparation; wash all surfaces, utensils and hands thoroughly; cook ground beef to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; and confirm the internal temperature of the beef with a food thermometer.
Government regulators, the medical community and the food industry agree -- these four basic, common-sense precautions are the most effective way to combat foodborne illness in fresh ground beef that is sold at retail.
Last year, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets and the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, developed an educational campaign that literally sought to bring these messages "home." Each element was promoted in new in-store signage and on-pack labels. Thermometers were merchandised next to meat cases.
Other retailers were quick to follow, like Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz. The 91-unit retailer launched a similar ground-beef safety program last September.
Giant Food, Landover, Md., part of Ahold USA, Atlanta, is another retailer that has taken the driver's seat in this food-safety education campaign. According to Eileen Katz, assistant director of consumer affairs, the ground-beef food-safety program the chain launched in January has been "successful," with customers responding positively to the program.
She said the education has provided greater protection for customers against the possibility of contaminated ground beef, more so than any case-ready program could, because it speaks directly to the consumer.
"Proper cooking is what makes the meat safe, even if there are bacteria in it," she said.
To educate customers about proper handling measures, the retailer installed the food-safety program at the point of purchase as a way to reinforce the food-safety message. Customers are consistently reminded to cook their ground beef to 160 degrees Fahrenheit through on-pack labels, meat-case signs, and displays of thermometers and T-Sticks, which are one-time-use, disposable thermometers.
"The biggest gage of the program's success is the sale of the T-Sticks and thermometers," she said. " We have sold over 50,000 pieces since the program started. And that's real good compared to the amount of thermometers we sold prior to the program, which was not much."
In addition to merchandising the thermometers and T-Sticks alongside the meat case, the retailer has also continued to display safety brochures, but these have received less attention. "It gets picked up, but it's not like our fat and cholesterol brochure or seafood brochure," she said "This is not the kind of information people are dying to have. But, it's moving."
Another component of Giant's program has been the use of on-pack information stickers. The decals illustrate a thermometer reaching a temperature of 160 degrees. They remind the customer "that cooking ground beef to 160 degrees Fahrenheit kills harmful bacteria which can cause serious illness." They also tell customers to "place cooked beef on a clean plate" and to "use a thermometer or T-Stick."
Following the implementation of the safety program, ground-beef sales have remained unaffected, said Katz. She said that is a positive outcome since the retailer -- like the industry as a whole -- has long fretted over how best to approach a subject that, if mishandled, could negatively affect ground-beef sales.
"The concern that industry people have is that if you put something on the ground beef that talks about bacteria, people might not buy ground beef," she said. "But, that is not the case. People still buy it and probably feel better about it because they know how to protect themselves."
As of late, Giant has entered into the case-ready segment by offering a nationally branded ground-beef product under the Omaha, Neb.-based Signature Foods tag. The case-ready meat is presently being test-marketed throughout the retailer's 175 stores and is being merchandised in addition to its store-wrapped ground-beef products, she said.
According to Katz, the introduction of a case-ready ground-beef line was not merely a result of food-safety issues; rather, it is geared more toward the variety factor. She added that, so far, there are no plans to fully convert to a case-ready ground-beef program.
"We're just trying it," she said. "It's comparable to our regular ground beef."
At Pratt Food Stores, a nine-unit chain based in Shawnee, Okla., educating consumers about food safety has become a top priority in an effort to protect customers from contaminates associated with ground beef. According to J.B. Pratt, owner and chief executive officer, it's crucial that customers are armed with accurate handling and cooking information before going home to cook the product.
"There's a food-safety concern with all ground beef that isn't cooked properly -- what the customer does with the product after they buy it, in terms of refrigerating and protecting it. And then, of course, the cooking part of it is the critical issue. Nothing we can do is going to eliminate all the risk if the product is not cooked properly," he said. "The day of the rare hamburger ought to be over."
For these reasons, Pratt Food provides brochures and thermometers at the meat case, reminding customers to cook the ground-beef products to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the brochures is provided by "Fight BAC," aimed at eliminating bacteria in food preparation at home. It was developed by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a coalition of more than 50 industry, government and consumer groups.
Pratt explained that some retailers at first may be skeptical about pushing a food-safety message right at the meat case. But, he cited the success of Wegmans' food-safety program that initially slowed sales and "then customers started to thank them."
Another item in Pratt Food's meat case that borrows a page on food safety are the case-ready ground-beef chubs. The chubs arrive at the store already wrapped in plastic, almost like sausage, and provide increased food-safety precautions.
"When it's packaged at the plant, it's not opened [at store level], and we just price it," he said. "I think because we can skip that step, it reduces the risk -- there's no secondary handling in the store. I think that gives you some security, but customer preparation is the real key."
Pratt said that he has also done some testing of case-ready ground-beef varieties that are wrapped like the store-packaged ground beef.
"I see [case-ready] as a way to reduce safety risks and, for that reason, I really like it," he said. "It's one less time you have to run it through a grinder and expose it to surfaces. When it comes already wrapped or it's in a chub or a meat tray with a clear overwrap, you are decreasing your risk and your liability."
Pratt added that while the chubs don't have the eye appeal of the store-packaged ground beef, they do present other advantages. He said that when the chubs are placed on sale, they sell better than the store-wrapped ground beef because they have a lower cost/weight ratio.
"Eye appeal has a lot to do with why we put the [in-store] ground beef out in the transparent packaging," he said. "Some customers would prefer to have a product that they can see. But, [case-ready] offers a real value [for consumers] and the labor costs are minimal in the chub."
Even though Pratt has considered adding more case-ready ground-beef products to the meat case, particularly the shrink-wrapped variety, he's waiting for demand to catch up with the idea.
"I think it's an evolutionary thing. It's like the chubs were 10 years ago," he observed, adding that consumer acceptance will depend on how these case-ready line extensions are introduced into the market.
Also carrying out an ambitious ground-beef food-safety initiative is West Coast retailer, Trader Joe Co., based in South Pasadena, Calif.
The 112-unit retailer has long been an advocate of case-ready ground beef on food-safety grounds. Since it operates smaller stores averaging about 10,000 square feet, it opted to offer the case-ready ground beef almost six years ago to save on space, as the chain grew its successful frozen program to include fresh items.
"We have done a case-ready program," said Chris Condit, Trader Joe's senior meat and dairy buyer. "We have never had in-store meatcutters or processing. It always made sense from not only a cost, but from a safety standpoint, to do it that way."
Six days a week, Trader Joe receives fresh ground beef supplied from a local central-processing facility. Every batch of ground beef is tested by the facility for E. coli contamination and then is sealed in modified-atmosphere packaging. Before each individual tray of ground beef is placed 12 to a case and sent to the retailer's warehouse, a machine at the packing facility weighs, prices and date stamps it.
In addition, the label for ground-beef products includes the Trader Joe logo, since the products are part of the retailer's portfolio of fresh signature items.
To ensure the ground beef remains fresh and bacteria-free during transit, as well as well as in the store meat cases, a time-temperature indicator developed by LifeLines Technology, Morris Plains, N.J., is applied to every package of meat during the packaging stage.
LifeLines' indicators are temperature-reactive and slowly cloud up over a 10-day period if the ground beef is kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, "below the danger zone," said Condit. He said that product is pulled when the indicator completely clouds up or the code date passes, whichever comes first.
If the the product experiences temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit anywhere within that 10-day selling period, the indicator immediately alerts store associates to pull the product.
"It has prevented temperature abuse at all times and that's what it's there for," he said. "It does work."
Customers are alerted to the purpose of the on-pack indicators with a manufacturer's description located on the package. Condit said that at one time Trader Joe's did have signs above the case, but customers didn't pay much attention to them.
"They look right at the indicators, which have a legend on the side" that describes the status of the meat. Brochures explaining the function of the temperature indicators are also available at the meat case should customers want more detailed information, said Condit. He added that the LifeLines indicators encourage customers to visit the company Web site to "look at the science" behind the indicators.
To monitor the case-ready program at store level, one person is assigned to check to make sure the ground-beef items are not packed above the cold line and do not contain cloudy indicators.
The associate also controls the ordering, so the store is not "ordering 10 cases a day when they're selling four and all of sudden building up inventory," said Condit, in regard to keeping the meat as fresh and safe as possible.