WASHINGTON (FNS) -- This month's recall of about 1.2 million pounds of ground beef suspected of carrying the potentially deadly strain of E. coli bacteria was the largest national recall of contaminated meat or poultry in recent memory -- but it was also one of the most efficient, according to government officials.
Unlike other bacterially contaminated food scares, the recall of Hudson Foods' hamburger patties came soon after health officials in Colorado noted a cluster of illnesses had occurred after 16 people reported eating the same brand of burger. The recall began with 20,000 pounds, but was expanded to about 1.2 million pounds.
It was not immediately known how much of the beef was eaten, how much is still on shelves or how much remains in consumers' freezers.
But the small number of illnesses is a sign that the recall process is effective, and the swiftness of the recall reflects how knowledgeable federal and state officials have become about detecting an outbreak of food-borne illnesses and then tracking its source, health officials told SN.
"They caught a potential outbreak of illness early," said a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The hallmark for change in government regulations governing control of pathogens in meat is widely traced to a 1993 outbreak of illness in the upper Northwest connected to undercooked hamburgers contaminated with the virulent E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria sold at a fast-food restaurant. More than 700 people in four states were infected, 51 seriously, and there were four deaths.
Since then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented a new meat inspection program, requiring slaughterhouses and meat packers to employ state-of-the-art Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point food-safety systems. Slaughterhouses are required to test for the presence of E. coli.
Hudson Foods, Rogers, Ark., informed the USDA last week it would suspend operations at its Columbus, Neb., plant and recall all products produced there. It said the action was being taken as a precaution to restore public confidence and that raw ground beef was the only product involved with the recall and suspension of operations.
E. coli gets into food through contact with fecal matter and its reach isn't only in meat. The CDC recently blamed an outbreak in June and July of intestinal illnesses in Virginia and Michigan on contaminated alfalfa sprouts.
E. coli 0157:H7 is a relatively new strain, first detected in 1982. The CDC estimates that each year between 10,000 and 20,000 people fall ill from eating food contaminated with the bacteria.
Bob Hahn, director of legal affairs at Public Voice for Food and Health Care Policy, said the Hudson Foods recall should send a signal to retailers about the need to scrutinize their suppliers.
Retailers expressed little concern about the effect of the recall on beef sales.
Wayne Dempsey, a meat category buyer for Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J., said that the recall would "have a negligible effect because it's restricted to one processor."
Paul Bernish, a spokesman for Kroger Co., Cincinnati, said, "I haven't gotten a handle that it has hurt beef sales."
Mickey Clerc, a spokesman for Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., seconded the motion by noting, "There's no reason why it should affect our business."
Rita Simmer, a spokeswoman for Supervalu, Minneapolis, said she thought it was a little early to tell what effect Hudson's recall might have on beef sales.
"I don't see it affecting beef sales," said Jack Shakoor, the owner of two IGAs in Boonton and Dayton, N.J., less than a week after the beef had been recalled.
"If you really look at the incidents, they are so isolated," explained Shakoor about why he believed the scare was unlikely to have a long-term effect on beef sales. "People have to eat. What are you going to do?"
John Story, senior meat director at Fairway Foods, Northfield, Minn., shared his belief that probably only a small amount of the product recalled would actually be affected.
"We are not seeing the reaction that we had up to two years ago," said Ron Cox, meat merchandiser at the Seattle-based seven-store Puget Consumers Co-op, about this E. coli outbreak compared with others in previous years.
"People are hearing it so often they don't pay attention to it. I haven't heard of anybody in the area being affected, or even expressing concern about [the outbreak]," said Cox.
"No one knows what Hudson is around here," said Al Kober, the meat buyer at Clemens Markets in Kulpsville, Pa. "It has had no effect on beef sales and I don't expect it to."
Some retailers had even pinpointed positive effects of the recall.
"I don't think this outbreak would [negatively] affect our sales, if anything it would increase them," noted Brian Grinnan, a meat manager at Bread of Life in Plantation, Fla., which is owned by Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market.
"Our meat is very clean and our customers know it," he added, citing a 2% increase in sales that Bread of Life had seen since the recall.
Fairway's Story also said his meat sales had not slowed down during the week after the recall. "Our four stores in the city ran ground beef for 59 cents a pound and there was an increase in sales," which he primarily attributed to the sale price.
According to some retailers the recall's positive effects even go beyond pumping up beef sales.
"I think it will just enforce with consumers proper methods of handling and cooking [beef]," said Pathmark's Dempsey.
Fairway's Story also highlighted the importance of properly educating consumers about how to handle meat, a factor which can contribute to such outbreaks.
"We try to do as much as we can to protect ourselves knowing that consumers may end up getting sick because of the way they handle the meat," added Story.
A few retailers detailed some of the negative effects that the E. coli outbreak brought about.
"The meat industry has been getting a bad rap for years and this isn't going to help," noted Rick Vernon, store manager of West Point Market, Akron, Ohio. "I think people are going to be eating more chicken."
"I think that the meat industry is getting beaten up so badly lately that anything like this is going to have an effect," concurred Fairway's Story. "But I don't know how much."
Dave Bennett, an owner of Mollie Stones, an independent in Mill Valley, Calif., noted the recall had not affected his beef sales, but added that the outbreak "might give people another reason not to eat meat."
Pathmark's Dempsey added, "I guess any negative announcement has some effect on beef sales."
West Point's Vernon warned, "these manufacturers will have to update their equipment and be more careful because they won't be able to get away with it."
None of the retailers SN spoke with said they had taken any formal steps to inform customers that their beef was not part of the suspect lots recalled by Hudson.
"We feel no need to put out sign work for a product we don't even carry," said Pathmark's Dempsey about the absence of signs on store floors.
"We don't feel taking action in something we are not involved in is appropriate or beneficial," said Winn-Dixie's Clerc.
Whole Foods' Grinnan said they were "just speaking to customers and didn't have anything in writing."
"We have had customers contact us and we have informed them [we don't carry recalled product]," said Mark Roeder, a spokesman for Giant Food, Landover, Md.
Kroger's Bernish said, "We aren't doing anything overtly, but we are responding to questions."
Some retailers said the outbreak had caused them to be more proactive in educating their staff about the risks of food-borne illness.
West Point's Vernon said "I'll take articles off the Internet and give them to managers."
The PCC's Cox said he felt his customers were already well informed from the last E. coli outbreak, when "we got a lot of information and put out notices to our members."
Despite the fact that many of the retailers that SN interviewed believed that this recent E. coli outbreak would have little long-term impact on the meat industry, a few begged to differ and shared some of their insights as to how it might have a hand in shaping the future of the meat industry.
"In general the whole-food distribution system and the regulations are changing and becoming more demanding. It'll be costing more to sell beef," said West Point's Vernon.
In the long run, although "we are reducing E. coli and we are trying our best to get rid of it," according to Clemens' Kober, further steps may have to be taken.
"I think we need to look at all possible alternatives to making a safer food system and I think that irradiation needs to be talked about," stated Kober. "It is already being done for chicken in Florida and being marketed as value-added."
While he cautioned that irradiation could never be 100% effective, Kober estimated that it might be as much as 99.9% effective.
Fairway's Story added that he was in the process of studying irradiation and that certain items might benefit from it "if consumers would accept that idea." But he cautioned that "it's going to be expensive."
Mollie Stone's Bennett was a bit more skeptical about the use of irradiation.
"Our customer base is generally anti-irradiated products and not comfortable with the fact that they don't have to be labeled as such," stated Bennett.
Proposing an alternative method, Kroger's Bernish said he hoped the new testing device for E. coli that was recently introduced by the Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Md., "would address potential health problems at the manufacturing level."
None of the retailers interviewed reported carrying any Hudson Foods product.
Wal-Mart, Safeway, American Stores Co., Publix Super Markets and Harps Food Stores corporate offices did not return phone calls. Comments from officials at Albertson's and Fleming were limited to stating that they carried no Hudson Foods products.