SAFETY FIRST

Twenty-five million pounds of ground beef. In the high-volume world of food chain retailing, that may not sound like much.But looking back at the events that shaped fresh-foods retailing in 1997, that number -- the amount of hamburger meat processed by Rogers, Ark.-based Hudson Foods Co. that was pulled from the market in the biggest and most publicized meat recall ever -- represents considerable

Twenty-five million pounds of ground beef. In the high-volume world of food chain retailing, that may not sound like much.

But looking back at the events that shaped fresh-foods retailing in 1997, that number -- the amount of hamburger meat processed by Rogers, Ark.-based Hudson Foods Co. that was pulled from the market in the biggest and most publicized meat recall ever -- represents considerable weight for an industry bearing the burden of questions about food safety.

As individual food-safety crises go, the Hudson Foods beef recall came and went pretty quickly. As far as public health investigators could tell, less than 20 people fell ill from eating the burger patties that were contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. And beyond the disastrous consequences for Hudson itself, the industry consensus was that the impact on sales was negligible.

However, that's the short view. Put into perspective, the news event is emblematic of a year in which the question of how to keep contaminated product out of the fresh food pipeline kept retailers, suppliers, government officials and consumers often riveted.

In 1997, the larger lesson learned from this and other publicized poisonings by perishables was that everyone -- supermarket operators and consumers included -- has a role to play in the food-safety drama, and it's time to learn one's lines and take the stage.

Retailers, in step with their partners in the food distribution system, did take action this year. Many worked on their skills at sanitation and quality control. Some of them made improvements to their in-store refrigeration equipment and to their cold-chain distribution systems.

By now, any major chain without a food scientist or QA expert in a major staff position could be considered out of step. Retailers have started -- or at least will admit that they need to start -- to scrutinize all their fresh food suppliers to make sure they are cleaning up their acts and are accountable.

And the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, this year played a leading role in the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a cross-section of industry groups and government agencies that launched Fight Bac, a food-safety publicity campaign aimed at consumers.

The star of the $1 million campaign is Bac, short for bacteria, a slimy green mascot representing the threat of virulent bacteria in the food supply, whose job is to mildly spook consumers and at the same time teach them about the basics of making sure the food they consume is not contaminated.

The campaign was a piece of the Clinton administration's food-safety initiative, started earlier in 1997. Let loose on the nation in October, Bac had stepped off a food-safety train that had kept moving all year long. Before the year was out, another couple of milestones that could be linked to food safety were delivered as well.

One was the approval, granted just weeks ago by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for the irradiation of red meat. The other, following closely behind, was the long-awaited release of rules to govern the marketing of organic foods. (While not directly related to microbiological issues -- harmful bacteria can thrive on organically grown food, too -- the rising sales of organic fresh produce doubtlessly coincides with a growing public interest in natural-food consumption as it relates to health.)

Early on 1997, President Clinton proposed a 1998 Federal budget that called for directing $43 million toward food-safety programs, in a strategy that would include improving methods for tracking food poisoning outbreaks and increased inspections.

"We must continue to modernize the food-safety system," Clinton said. In other words, you could count on the food-safety train to continue to work up steam.

The government promised that it also will look at ways to prevent the bacterial contamination of produce and fresh-squeezed juices; tighten the inspection of imported fruits and vegetables; continue to revamp meat, poultry and seafood inspections; and so on.

The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., squeezed food safety onto the agenda of its February convention at the last minute, explaining that it detected worry -- even signs of panic -- among its constituency about government interference. But Tom Stenzel, United's president, said a greater threat lay in the hysteria and resulting drops in consumption that could engulf produce in the face of a scare.

He also said the food industry should be careful not to lay too much responsibility on consumers. "We don't want to make it a consumer issue: It's a production and distribution issue. If we're not careful, we're going to create this fear among the public that all of a sudden produce is unsafe."

As it happened, the United convention became the scene for the birth of a coalition with the goal of uniting "all stakeholders in produce safety, including companies at each stage of the produce chain," to address the microbiological safety issue.

The industry wisely surmised that the spotlight would likely be swinging its way. United laid out a strategy to help the industry deal with thorny food-safety issues. The Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., responded by offering as much as $100,000 in matching funds for the produce food-safety coalition.

Bob DiPiazza, chairman of PMA and the group vice president of perishables for Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill., said that at the top of PMA's priority list was finding ways for the produce industry -- and retailers especially -- to guard against foodborne disease and defend itself more vigorously against the economic threats posed by food-safety scares.

In the spring, reports of cyclospora infection linked to raspberries had negative effects on berry sales. Reports that the product came from Guatemala prompted consumers to ask retailers where they were getting their raspberries, and sales fell off.

Finally it was produce's turn under the government spotlight, but the industry was ready. In the fall, President Clinton asked Congress for $24 million to exert the federal authority to bar fruits and vegetables from countries that don't meet U.S. safety standards for the presence of bacteria and pesticides in food.

He also asked the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to draft voluntary safety standards within a year for the growing, processing, shipping and selling of fresh produce domestically. Many saw this as a first foray into more stringent regulation in the name of food safety.

But the day before Clinton made his request, the produce industry released and publicized a blueprint for protecting fresh produce from microbiological contamination in the growing, harvesting and shipping stages of the distribution chain. The guidelines had the backing of 20 produce industry organizations, and were basic enough to apply to any commodity.

Industry players were casting their nets beyond produce as well. Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., early in 1997 became the first major chain to be certified under the U.S. Department of Commerce's Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point standards program for retail seafood.

"It was two-year effort, which resulted in the redesign of our seafood distribution center, creation of an education program for seafood employees, and standardization of in-store handling practices," said Jo Natali, chain spokeswoman. Just as important, Wegmans set about making sure consumers knew it was a HACCP certified operation and what that meant.

As many expected it would, government attention turned specifically toward retail. The FDA said in June that it wanted to create a "benchmark" by which food-safety programs at supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores would be judged.

The proposal for a National Retail Food Program Standard was another extension of President Clinton's food-safety initiative. Called "a uniform piece of advice" for retailers, the benchmark would not take the form of regulation, FDA said.

Lingering concerns about the safety of imported produce led to a pair of bills being introduced in Congress at midyear to mandate country of origin labels for all fresh produce in the store. Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Calif., who introduced one of the bills, said outbreaks of illness traced to imported berries "underscore the need for labeling imported produce."

Not surprisingly, retailers were not supportive of an idea that would force them to label every piece of produce and make them liable for mistakes. "The problem is not labeling everything in the store by country of origin," said Timothy M. Hammonds, president of FMI. "The problem is to keep [unsafe produce] out of the country."

Then, the food-safety question was escalated by the Hudson Foods recall. In the second week of August, the meat-processing firm, recalled 20,000 pounds of ground beef because of possible E. coli contamination. Victims had started cropping up in Colorado in late June after eating the suspect beef, and E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria were found in samples of the product. As a result, 80,000 patties in three lots were recalled.

It was just the tip of the iceberg. The recall ballooned quickly to 1.2 million pounds, marking the largest national recall of meat or poultry in recent memory.

Retailers, meanwhile, had mixed reactions. Some said the recall had little or no effect on their own sales of ground beef, but others said the magnitude of the recall was sure to have some negative implications, or at least should be taken as a sign that everyone in the pipeline needed to make sure their operations were clean.

Finally, the recall peaked at 25 million pounds, due to Hudson's ill-advised practice of reworking leftover grind into the next day's batch. The company's Columbus, Neb., plant was shut down, and eventually sold to meat packer IBP Inc., Dakota City, Neb.

People were still buying and eating plenty of hamburger meat from supermarkets in the weeks that followed the recall. But in the waves of post-recall analysis, experts said it pointed to the need for processors to better manage crisis situations; for a better defined and possibly more authoritative role for government; for retailers to provide more educational material; and for exploration of better methods of tracking and combating foodborne pathogens.

Possible impact down the line includes more companies forcing their suppliers to test and hold product more often; sharpened inspection procedures and more and better education for consumers.

What's more, the Hudson Foods incident made a good case for irradiation, and support of the technology seemed to be gaining ground after years of stagnation. "The one thing that is different now is the public is starting to believe the major hazards they face with micro-organisms in food," said George Pauli, director of the FDA's Division of Public Policy at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Rounds of bill proposals and letter writing kept the heat on for timely approval of irradiation for red meat. Finally, FDA approval for irradiating red meat was cleared in the first week of December. It was a first step in a long process. Further regulatory steps await; and the industry would need to establish some kind of infrastructure for working irradiation into the processing and distribution system without adding too much to the cost of doing business.

But the biggest step of all is also the most uncertain: Will consumers accept the concept of irradiation as a safe and desirable way to help fight back against foodborne illness? Retailers, who at their best consider themselves the buying agents for consumers, will have to watch closely which way the winds of consumer opinion blow -- in 1998 and beyond.

Of course, another big recall or rash of food poisonings can change the climate very quickly.

In the meantime, the natural-food supermarket juggernaut kept plowing into markets across the country. The two leaders, Whole Foods Markets, Austin, Texas; and Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., kept up their store opening and acquisition sprees.

Whole Foods aggressively promoted the organic produce in its stores as a safe alternative to bioengineered produce.

"If you don't want to buy genetically engineered produce, hop on a flight to Europe or shop at Whole Foods Market," it boasted in advertisements. The chain claimed its stores were the only place where consumers could be sure they were not getting bioengineered product, which it called "science fiction business."

But in a market where retailers and suppliers alike are charting courses for a more consumer-driven food market, the question is, are missives about food safety really being taken to heart?

At least one consumer, Richard Dimock, a spokesman for the consumer group Safe Tables Our Priority, would say yes. At the United Public Affairs Conference, Dimock told attendees at that his son almost died from consuming fresh apple juice tainted with virulent E. coli.

"Consumers will pay the price to have safe products," he said.