Although experts are calling the short-term retail effects of the Hudson Foods beef patty recall minor, the incident has raised concerns about related food-safety issues.
Some of the issues touched upon by the experts interviewed by SN included the danger posed by a false sense of comfort after a recall, the need for producers to better manage crisis situations, the need for a better defined and possibly more authoritative role for government, the need for retailers to provide more educational materials and the importance of exploring alternative methods of combating food borne illness.
"I doubt that we have seen a difference in sales [since the Hudson beef recall]," stated Odonna Mathews, vice president for consumer affairs at Giant Food, Landover, Md. "People are still buying and eating hamburger."
"I don't think that this particular recall will have any effect on the overall safety of our meat supply," explained Craig Hedberg, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health, Minneapolis.
"It looks like we haven't suffered in terms of sales," concurred John Farquhar, the vice president of science and technology at the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
"The meat industry has confronted one scare after another for the past 10 years and the consumer still seems to have a love affair with hamburger," said Rich Frank, a meat industry lawyer and partner in the law firm of Olsson, Frank & Weeda, Washington.
"I don't think people make major dietary decisions based on food safety, which is why I don't think the Hudson recall will have a long-term effect," added a meat industry expert, who requested not to be identified.
Although burger sales may not have been affected by this recall, the Minnesota Department of Health's Hedberg expressed concern about the false sense of food-safety security that may come in the aftermath of such a large recall.
"We do have concerns about the impressions that large recalls give to the consuming public that [the remaining beef on the market] should be free of E. coli."
He added, "The scope of the recall seems to be much broader than the actual outbreak of disease," another factor that might create an expectation that all the meat potentially at risk has been pulled from the shelves and the rest of the meat supply is free of bacteria.
"Despite the best efforts of government there's always potential for contamination and raw meat has to be treated as if it were contaminated," continued the Minnesota Department of Health's Hedberg.
"I think they should be honest about the risk," said Heather Klinkhamer, the program director for Safe Tables Our Priority, a consumer and food borne-illness victims advocacy group based in New York.
And Frank expressed concern that too much attention might be directed to one type of bacteria at the expense of combating others.
Despite the perception by the experts that the long-term effects of the 25 million-pound Hudson recall would be limited or negligible, many expressed concern over the way the incident was handled and noted a variety of food-safety concerns that it raised.
The way Hudson handled the situation "was a disaster. All their major customers were exposed," said the meat industry expert.
"Hudson was disingenuous with their customers and the USDA about the extent of the rework and had to dramatically expand the recall," he continued.
A Hudson spokesman said the company thought it handled the situation responsibly and rework is "a generally accepted practice.
"As soon as Hudson recognized the need to recall more meat and restore public confidence, the natural move was to shut the plant [where the recalled patties were processed, in Columbus, Neb.] to secure the public's trust," said the spokesman.
"What really hurts a company is to have a crisis trickle out day after day," said John Weber, a senior vice president at Nichols Dezenhall Communications, a crisis management communications firm in Washington.
The Hudson spokesman attributed the first increase from 20,000 to 1.2 million pounds of recalled meat to a misunderstanding between Hudson Foods and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said that the later increase in the number of pounds recalled, from 1.2 million to 25 million, was undertaken as a precaution to restore public confidence.
Nichols Dezenhall's Weber added that Hudson also gave the impression that it "isn't in control of the situation but is being driven by others."
"I'd give them a failing grade. It appears that they failed to notify the public that they were reusing product and they didn't take responsibility," said STOP's Klinkhamer.
"It's easy for consumers and retail customers to feel betrayed," said Nichols Dezenhall's Weber. "One of the most important things Hudson needs to do is show that they care. Customers want to hear them say that they care about the problem and they are doing something about it."
In the aftermath of such a crisis, "there's a lot of fence mending to be done," said Weber. "Hudson needs to win back the trust of its customers."
The government's handling of the situation both prior to and after the recall was also criticized by some of those interviewed.
"I think the whole story has not been totally told," said the FMI's Farquhar. "Where was the government when the meat patties were being reworked?" he questioned.
Susan Conley, the director of food safety education and communications at the USDA, Washington, said that agency managers were reviewing inspection issues and that "those kinds of judgments would come in the course of the investigation."
STOP's Klinkhamer said that in the long term she hoped the loopholes in the inspection system would be closed and the USDA would be given the power of mandatory recall of suspect meat.
"There also needs to be more frequent testing," noted Frank of Olsson, Frank and Weeda. "You are going to have more companies forcing their suppliers to test and hold," he explained, noting the test for the particular strain of E. coli implicated in the Hudson recall takes two days to get results.
Timely and effective response from the meat industry, according to some of those interviewed, was also notably absent during and after the recall.
"The industry is still downplaying the risk and saying that 'If you cook it, you'll be OK,' " lamented STOP's Klinkhamer.
Retail response to the recall was also taken to task.
STOP's Klinkhamer noted the absence of any consumer information about the process of bacterial testing that would enable the public to reduce the chances of getting sick.
"There is no standardization and retailers have done very little education," said the meat industry expert.
Giant Food's Mathews differed, saying her operation's commitment to food safety has always been active. "We have had food-safety messages out there continuously."
Mathews added that the recall had served to heighten consumer awareness of food-safety issues. "I think it has provided a lot of consumer education."
Alternative solutions to prevent future outbreaks of food borne disease were also touched upon by the experts interviewed.
"Short of irradiation, elimination of E. coli isn't going to happen," the Minnesota Department of Health's Hedberg stated.
And the FMI's Farquhar cautioned that irradiation "has to be a government initiative. I don't think the Food and Drug Administration has signed off on it and the government really needs to take a look at it."
Hedberg called irradiation "probably the next big gain we make in food safety, because short of that we are going to have things like this happen."