BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Wal-Mart Stores here has told its beef suppliers that it expects them to find ways to achieve a 100,000-fold reduction of enteric pathogens found on beef in their slaughterhouses by June 2012, and a 100-fold reduction of pathogens in their processing plants, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
“Specifically, Wal-Mart will require its beef slaughter suppliers to implement an approved intervention or a combination of interventions between post-hide removal and final trim production that will consistently produce, at a minimum, an initial cumulative 3-log reduction of enteric pathogens by June 2011,” Dr. James Marsden of Kansas State University, wrote on his blog at meatingplace.com .
“Thereafter, they are requesting a further reduction goal to achieve a total cumulative 5-log reduction between post-hide removal and final trim production by June 2012. All intervention steps must be scientifically validated. In addition, interventions must not require a label declaration or have a negative effect on product quality or shelf life and must be accepted by consumers.”
Marsden told SN the details were contained in a letter that has been sent to Wal-Mart's suppliers.
The new standards seem to be part of an emerging trend. Retailers and wholesalers large enough to effectively demand these types of changes are taking new steps to try to reduce the incidence of E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef.
Demanding that all their suppliers establish new science-based, documented interventions, starting at slaughter sites, they're requiring specific reductions of harmful bacteria over a specific period of time. The companies' buying power is key.
“If a smaller meat retailer tried this, he'd be blacklisted by too many of his suppliers,” one industry source said.
Such a push by big companies such as Wal-Mart can benefit all food retailers and their customers.
“This can change the whole beef industry,” Marsden said. “When the slaughterhouses and processors take the measures required by Wal-Mart and Costco, they're not going to have a second production line that doesn't stick to the specified procedures. Together, Wal-Mart and Costco have quite a large portion of the ground beef market.”
Costco Wholesale Corp., Issaquah, Wash., for years has required its suppliers to adhere to similar interventions and demonstrate continued, measured reduction of harmful bacteria.
As an added precaution, Costco tests all trim as it arrives at the company's processing plant in Tracy, Calif. Then, it tests the ground beef it produces.
“We don't allow a shipment of ground beef to go out the door without that last testing,” said Craig Wilson, assistant vice president of quality assurance and food safety, for Costco worldwide.
“What our suppliers do, we verify. It's part of our HACCP plan. They know that,” Wilson told SN.
In a statement released late last month, Wal-Mart officials said they would also require their suppliers to implement new beef safety measures.
“In light of recent beef recalls, we determined it was prudent to require an additional layer of protection for our customers,” said Wal-Mart's vice president for food safety, Frank Yiannas, in a release.
“The new program requires Wal-Mart and Sam's Club beef suppliers to implement controls that would significantly reduce potential contamination levels and validate that the measures implemented are effective through specialized testing.”
The press announcement confirms the dates for compliance, but offers no further details about the new standards. When contacted by SN, Wal-Mart declined to comment further.
Marsden noted that most Wal-Mart suppliers already have effective intervention protocols in place, but “the new policy means that all suppliers will be required to do so and prove that they are doing so,” he said.
“Wal-Mart has taken a major step that has major ramifications for the beef industry.
Well in advance of their latest announcement, Wal-Mart had hired Yiannas, formerly with the Disney company, and one of the foremost food safety experts in the country.
“They've put a lot of thought into the new initiative,” Marsden added. “For example, before making the decision to implement the new performance standards, they determined that suppliers that already have the required interventions in place are price competitive.
“Wal-Mart is requiring their suppliers to provide documentation that scientific procedures have been carried out that will result in a defined reduction [of bacteria].”
While praising Wal-Mart, Marsden pointed out that Costco has been at the forefront of developing more stringent protocols, demanding its suppliers do what Wal-Mart is now outlining in its new initiative.
“Costco actually set the bar for this kind of action. Now, it's time for other big companies to step up and implement the same kinds of requirements,” Marsden said.
Costco's Wilson said that even though his company's food safety program has been effective, there's still room to improve.
“We test a lot, but we're always working to make it better and better.”
Right now, the company is working on a new program that could provide almost immediate traceback for any package of ground beef on its shelves.
“We'll be able to identify even the cows the trim came from in a package of ground beef,” Wilson said.
John Munsell, manager of the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, an advocacy group for small meat packers focused on stricter enforcement of safety regulations for big processors, also praised Wal-Mart's new demands, with a caveat.
“If Wal-Mart's new policy indeed results in real improvements at Wal-Mart's source slaughter suppliers, all consumers will benefit, but only if the large source slaughter plants consistently use the new, improved operating procedures for all animals being slaughtered.”
It's possible that Wal-Mart, as well as other companies, has been spurred to new food safety action by the front-page New York Times article that appeared last fall and ultimately won its writer, Michael Moss, a Pulitzer prize.
Moss traced the story of a single hamburger that ruined the life of a young dance teacher, Stephanie Smith, who suffered an extreme reaction to E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria in a hamburger she ate, and has been left paralyzed.
In researching his story, Moss revealed the many gaps in our country's food safety system.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack commented on the story, saying, “The story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic,” and he launched a review of all department meat safety procedures.