THE BIG HIT

At long last, it seems the flood of negative publicity flowing from the consumer press and electronic media about the food industry has been stanched, knock on wood.The abatement of the publicity flow was fairly predictable to those of us who have spent a good many years in the editorial business. That's because certain stories tend to become fashionable, prompting one media outlet to endeavor to

At long last, it seems the flood of negative publicity flowing from the consumer press and electronic media about the food industry has been stanched, knock on wood.

The abatement of the publicity flow was fairly predictable to those of us who have spent a good many years in the editorial business. That's because certain stories tend to become fashionable, prompting one media outlet to endeavor to outrun competitors by bulking up whatever the concern du jour might be. At some point, though, reader and viewer fatigue and suspicion set in. At about the same time, fatigue plagues the editors or producers responsible for pursuing the big story. So with that, the issue fades away.

But all the same, there's still one issue lurking that holds the potential to deliver the big hit to the industry: That's the issue of the pathogenic content of meat products sold in supermarkets and elsewhere.

It seems that hardly a week has passed this summer without some news surfacing to the effect that in one region or another of this big nation, illness connected with contaminated meat has materialized.

It might be successfully argued that, in fact, no more food-borne illness exists now than did earlier, but that means of detection have improved along with the eagerness to publicize such events.

Be that as it may, the real question is what should the industry do about meat-related illness, and will action be taken before or after an important supermarket category is severely damaged?

In a bid to answer that question, a task force earlier this month issued a 50-page report with the arcane but important title "Solving the E. Coli 0157:H7 Problem."

In an unusual bit of cross-industry cooperation, the task force members were drawn from a wide spectrum, including retailing (Vons Cos.), fast food (McDonald's Corp.), packing, research and government. The whole effort was knit together by the National Live Stock and Meat Board, Chicago.

The very fact that the task force was seated and talked about the problem is of value in sounding a note of urgency.

But what to do? The task force proposed modest recommendations that may do something to move various industry elements toward the goal of pathogen-free product. Some of the recommendations of the proposal -- which contemplates a "farm-to-table" effort -- are outlined in a news article, written by Fresh Foods Editor Louise Kramer, on Page 27 of this issue of SN.

Perhaps of most immediate concern are the actions recommended for supermarket retailers. Those include implementation of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) initiative, the certification of market managers and the use of a package symbol intended to attest to consumers that the training has taken place.

Also stressed is the importance of the development of a code that would allow the source of product received at retail to be traced to the earlier production stage. And retailers are encouraged to participate in activities intended to help consumers understand that, once product leaves the store, they are responsible for proper care and preparation.

These suggestions about retail action are useful, if minimalist. What may portend more change are the disquieting passages in the report showing how little is understood about this strain of E. coli and how factors such as bovine feed, care and transportation may, or may not, lead to its spread. It may happen that further research will make it plain that shorter and better-controlled production chains are needed. That could argue for a future with less in-store fabrication and more centralized production.