The bells that rang in 1999 sounded more alarming than joyous as manufacturers, government agencies and supermarkets wrestled with an unprecedented series of deaths and illnesses traced to hot dogs and luncheon meats contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes.
According to FSIS records, there were nearly three dozen recall cases nationwide involving either Listeria or E.coli 0157:H7 contamination in 1999, compared to just 19 the year before. The first major recall occurred back in January, and the most recent came in December. They hit companies large and small, without discrimination.
"There is a nationwide Listeriosis outbreak that is under investigation," said Beth Gaston, spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA back in February. Nationwide, an average of 35 people die each month from Listeriosis. By January 8, 1999, barely a week into the new year, 12 people were already dead due to the bacteria and dozens more were sick.
In February, it was discovered that the listeriosis contamination, believed to be confined to hot dogs and deli meats, had spread to milk and chicken burritos; a wrongful death lawsuit was brought against Chicago-based Sara Lee by a Chicago law firm representing John Bodnar, of Memphis, Tenn., whose wife died of Listeria monocytogenes meningitis the previous October after eating allegedly contaminated Ball Park-brand hot dogs; Southfield, Mich.-based Thorn Apple Valley's recall was estimated in February at nearly one million pounds of product, though consumer press accounts reported it as approaching 30 million pounds, which would make it the largest recall in history.
Though the sources of the bacteria could rarely be pinpointed, according to Gaston, the surge in Listeria-related recalls in 1999 had definite origins. Improved reporting techniques, better interagency cooperation between the USDA and the Atlanta, Ga.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and more accurate testing led to better detection rates, and therefore, an increase in callbacks. According to the CDC, Listeria causes 1,850 people to become seriously ill each year and 425 to die, with the elderly, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women being the most susceptible.
As companies across the country were pulling products from the shelves early in the year, the Clinton Administration proposed a budget for the Fiscal Year 2000 that would include a 12% increase in funds targeted for food safety, bringing the total allotment to more than one billion dollars. The FDA would receive an additional $30 million to spend on hiring more inspectors so that meat production plants were thoroughly examined once a year rather than the typical rate of once every three or four years. And the CDC would gain an additional $10 million to increase the number of laboratories engaged in DNA fingerprinting of food-borne pathogens in order to enhance its ability to track outbreaks of food-related illnesses.
By March 1999, President Clinton had rejected the idea of creating a single agency to watch over the food industry, recommended a year earlier by members of the National Academy of Science, saying instead that existing agencies should work together more closely. Yet, he reiterated his commitment to "ensuring the safety of America's food supply" and promised to have a national food-safety plan ready by January that would include budget recommendations. Even as the year-long trend of recalls and contamination scares began to unfold, the government was already moving toward engaging the situation.
In every case involving a recall, processors shut down the production lines that turned out the suspect items, and eventually reopened them after thorough inspections and upgrades that included new technology like postpasteurization.
Groups such as the National Meat Association, Oakland, Calif., began creating documents outlining ways to prevent further outbreaks, like the Guidelines for Developing Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Environmental Sampling/Testing Recommendations (ESTRs) for Ready-to-Eat (RTE) Products. And the FSIS published in the May 1999 Federal Register an advisory for establishments to reassess their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans to ensure they adequately addressed Listeriosis monocytogenes.
At store level, retailers were busy reassuring customers and launching their own food-safety programs. Bi-Lo, Mauldin S.C., was one of many supermarket chains that introduced "Don't Put It on the Bun Until It's Done" campaigns that impressed upon consumers the importance of cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, thereby eliminating any harmful bacteria. Publix, Lakeland, Fla., took the idea one step further, and actually included disposable thermometers on individual packges of ground beef.
Listeria and E. coli were not the only issues keeping the food industry busy in a battle for its own survival in 1999. In February of 1999, the USDA approved irradiation for all raw meat, marking the last hurdle for a process that began more than a year earlier, and two weeks ago, the agency issued its final rules. Retailers will be able to begin selling irradiated items by spring. The controversy over labeling was settled: USDA requires the international radura symbol and the word "irradiation" on all packages, or on signs next to bulk foods in service cases.
"Everybody understands that irradiation will be only one of many tools in a total system where the first priority of the food industry is to prevent contamination from ever occurring," said Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
The labeling of irradiated foods became a divider among the food industry and consumers mid-year, as many shoppers expressed a desire to see the the word "irradiation" on the product, but manufacturers pushed for a less controversial term such as "cold pasteurized," fearing an overreaction by wary consumers.
Not all the news was bad in 1999. The USDA approved a labeling program for certified-organic meat, poultry and egg products. Processors could now label their products "certified organic by," followed by the certifying body, upon seeking approval from the FSIS and meeting certain criteria. According to Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Organization, Greenfield, Mass., the group proposed to federal regulators a universal symbol of certification.
Retailers also took strides in 1999 by branding many of their products with names and identities that were designed to bolster their profile and profits, as well as through incorporating value-added products into the meat case. Companies like Sentry Supermarkets, which introduced its Signature Beef line and experimented with a "buy one, get one free" offer, made it clear that "beef will no longer be presented to the consumer as a sea of red meat in white foam trays," in the words of Mack H. Graves of Latigo, Inc., a Boulder, Colo.-based industry consultant.
Value-added meat products continued to grow in popularity in 1999, but many retailers agreed that the lines needed more customer-oriented selling techniques and that, while value-added meats do partly sell themselves, store associates bear the responsibility of helping consumers overcome doubts. With new products and brands arriving constantly, the meat case became a place for experimental organization and convenience in 1999. Busch's cooked up an unusual way to present the meat in its case, allowing consumers to browse their selection according to the time it takes to cook them, rather than by variety or cut of meat. The case was devoted entirely to the store's value-added meats, a collection of 40 products from ground beef to Black Angus, and had large product cards offering clear cooking instructions and cooking times posted within.
Retailers also agreed that the multideck case is a must-have in the age of value-added and case-ready meat products, with some stores opting for five-deck cases in addition to the three-deck units, especially in stores where there are only self-service cases and no service counters. The implementation of new multideck meat cases became a prevalent issue this year as the trend of replacing in-store meatcutters with case-ready products continued.
As 1999 comes to a close, a controversial and health-oriented year in the meat industry leaves only more questions for the future and a push toward the answers.