WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Food Marketing Institute here is taking a two-pronged approach to addressing the food safety issues associated with the potentially fatal bacteria E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef.
First, the trade association has developed a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program specifically focusing on ground beef that is intended for use at retail. The aim is to reduce the possibility of contamination once the meat has reached the store. The program is detailed in a booklet available from FMI.
Second, FMI is continuing to work to get the message out to consumers that food-borne illness stemming from the bacteria can be prevented by cooking hamburger meat until it is well done.
"This is an industrywide problem," said FMI spokesperson Karen Brown, a senior vice president at the trade association. "The best thing that can be done is to properly handle ground beef throughout the system and cook it until it is well done. You're talking about a vast amount of product that is coming together from a vast amount of sources."
FMI's support of a HACCP approach at retail for ground beef mirrors recommendations released last month from a task force convened by the National Live Stock and Meat Board to come up with ways to manage and control E. coli contamination from "farm to fork." These recommendations are part of a call for more research to isolate and eliminate this particularly virulent strain of E. coli from the food supply. Until that happens, control measures must be taken, food industry members agree.
In FMI's HACCP plan for ground beef, points are outlined as to where, and how, contamination can occur in the food chain, from the farm to the meat plant to retail. At retail, these points include: receiving, storing, assembling, pregrinding, mixing/ blending, packaging, labeling and display.
For example, a hazard at retail pinpointed in the plan is at the receiving stage for meat where the temperature and age of a product, as well as any signs of foreign material, must be monitored. "Never accept ground beef or trimmings with off odor or appearance or visual signs of contamination," the plan states.
The plan says that qualified staff must be in charge of determining if the temperature, age and integrity of the product meet standards and that the staff must have the proper tools to make their assessments. If standards are not met, the plan says the product should be put on hold for evaluation or disposed of by properly trained personnel.
The next step in this process is to evaluate the cause of the program and take action to prevent it from happening again.
Brown of FMI said that in light of continuing concern about E. coli, the trade association reissued its consumer brochures about safe handling several weeks ago. The mailing was made after E. coli made headlines again because of reported outbreaks in different states this summer, and because of a major conference on the issue in Washington.
The mailing was timed to the barbecuing season, Brown said.
She told SN that retailers are using a variety of approaches to get the message out. "You can't count on one medium to give information," she said.
One operator has instructed front-end clerks to remind shoppers buying ground beef to cook it thoroughly. Some companies, Brown said, have put safe-handling information on their shopping bags, while others have used their meat department video monitors to present videos on food safety. "The industry is doing everything it can to get the message out," she said.
While these control measures are being taken, the task force of the Live Stock and Meat Board also recommended that work continue to combat the problem via programs that would cost $4.5 million annually for the next several years. The task force suggested that all segments of the food industry contribute toward that goal. For the retail sector, an annual $500,000 was suggested.
Harry Sullivan, a senior vice president at FMI, said FMI hasn't yet officially been asked for the funds by the task force. "We'll need to take it under review and see what kinds of programs we're doing in kind. It's premature for us to get ahead of our members on that," he said.