MISLABELED GROUND BEEF FOUND IN FLORIDA STORES

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- One Florida retailer may be fined and several others have received warnings following a state investigation into labeling of ground beef.According to Pat Ernst, public information specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture, state investigators tested meat packages taken from 78 stores, including chain stores and small independents, and found widespread mislabeling of

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- One Florida retailer may be fined and several others have received warnings following a state investigation into labeling of ground beef.

According to Pat Ernst, public information specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture, state investigators tested meat packages taken from 78 stores, including chain stores and small independents, and found widespread mislabeling of ground beef. In addition to beef, the packages were found to contain various amounts and combinations of pork, poultry and lamb, Ernst said.

Ernst reported that the state found mislabeled products at several stores of the major chains investigated, including two Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets stores; one Tampa, Fla.-based Kash n' Karry store; two units of Albertson's, based in Boise, Idaho; two units of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores; one Bentonville, Ark.-based Sam's Club, and one Food World store, operated by Birmingham, Ala.-based Bruno's.

In a second, follow-up test, only the Food World unit was found to be selling adulterated products. Because it was the second incident, the Department of Agriculture has authorization to fine the retailer, a move being considered by its legal department, Ernst said.

In contrast to the state's findings, Les Copeland, spokesman for Sam's Club, said the company "only sells unadulterated ground beef" in its stores. He added that, in a recent routine state inspection of the meat department on April 14, it received the highest rating possible. In a printed statement issued to the press, Albertson's said, it is

the company's policy "to provide our customers with only the highest quality meat, produce and other grocery products. We go to great lengths to train our personnel to make sure that this is the case.

"In order to prevent mixture of different species in ground products, Albertson's has a nationwide policy of not grinding any pork or poultry at store level. Instead, these products are ground by our suppliers and shipped to our stores. "If a customer requests that we grind a pork or poultry product in the store, we will do so and our meat department personnel have been instructed to thoroughly clean the meat grinder after preparing the product."

The other companies mentioned did not return phone calls for comment by press time.

Four Florida units of Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., which were also investigated, showed no violations.

The investigation was conducted in Dade, Brevard and Palm Beach counties. The first samples were taken in late April and early May, followed by the second sample in late May and early June. The results were released June 23.

"The way our laws are here, the first time, we warn a store about the dangers of [mislabeling] and why it is important," said Ernst. "Then we go back the second time and we can levy a fine of up to $5,000."

Ernst said while the ground meat was safe to eat if properly cooked, the labeling is "erroneous and deceptive" and can cause consumers to unintentionally violate dietary or religious restrictions.

"Truth in labeling is something that is very hot right now, and you can't tell by sight," said Ernst.

Ernst said state officials met with representatives from each chain found in violation after the first samples were taken.

The state, said Ernst, gives violators the chance to clean up their act before being penalized because "there might be some ignorance on the part of the stores, in that workers might not be cleaning things as well as they should be."

The state also sent warning letters and educational letters.

"We were very encouraged by the follow-ups," added Ernst.

"By doing it this way, we felt we were able to temporarily fix this problem, or control it."

Ernst said the Agriculture Department periodically conducts random sampling.