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SUMMER GRIND

Summer is grilling season, and that's when retailers and the meat industry step up efforts to educate consumers about food safety -- particularly ground beef.A number of initiatives have emerged in the ongoing battle to protect the meat supply from pathogens like Listeria moncytogenes and E. coli 0157:H7. They include case-ready product, which eliminates in-store grinding and therefore closes an additional

Summer is grilling season, and that's when retailers and the meat industry step up efforts to educate consumers about food safety -- particularly ground beef.

A number of initiatives have emerged in the ongoing battle to protect the meat supply from pathogens like Listeria moncytogenes and E. coli 0157:H7. They include case-ready product, which eliminates in-store grinding and therefore closes an additional opportunity for product contamination, as well as irradiation, an electron-beam process of eliminating microorganisms that has been slower to catch on in some markets.

One of the forerunners in the introduction of irradiated beef to the buying public is Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, a chain that has long been educating consumers on safety issues related to ground beef.

"Back in the 1990s, Wegmans was the first company to come forward and tell customers that the only safe way to consume ground beef is to cook it to 160 degrees Fahrenheit," said Jeanne Colleluori, spokeswoman for Wegmans. "Customers told us that they understood why they had to cook it to that temperature, but that they didn't like the taste or the texture."

In search of better ways to meet consumers' demands for safer, yet better-tasting ground beef, Wegmans turned to irradiated meat. In May of 2001, they brought Fairview Farms irradiated frozen ground beef patties into their stores.

"The response to the frozen patties was very good so in May of 2002, we introduced our own Wegmans fresh irradiated ground beef in one- and three-pound rolls in 80% and 90% leannesses," says Colleluori. "The response to that was even better and we recently began selling fresh irradiated preformed patties, which have received a great response too."

When first introducing the new products, the chain was eager to exhibit a sense of confidence that these were the right products for the right times, and so launched them in all stores at once as opposed to a store-by-store rollout. The retailer simultaneously initiated a wide-ranging educational campaign to inform the public about its new offerings.

"We held three press conferences in three of our major markets -- Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse," said Colleluori. "We had a tremendous amount of coverage from radio, TV and newspapers."

Wegmans started an in-store sampling campaign that enabled shoppers not to only taste the beef, but also to learn about the extra layer of safety that irradiation provided. The chain also talked to meat department personnel in all of its stores about the myths and facts associated with irradiation, Colleluori told SN.

Like Wegmans, Highland Park Markets in Glastonbury, Conn., began to hear shoppers talk about irradiated ground beef, with several people requesting that their meat department carry such items. However, as Highland Park's meat department manager Tony Frankovitch would soon find, the demand in the local market wasn't strong enough to support even a small inventory.

"We've been around for over 100 years and generations of shoppers have come to know us as a source for fresh ground meat. We still grind our own trimmings here and really haven't had a need to bring in prepackaged meat at all," said Frankovitch. "But, we had a few people ask for irradiated ground beef and we tried selling it in our full-service meat department first, which didn't do very well."

According to Frankovitch, while some local consumers were aware of irradiated beef, most were uneducated on the concept, uninterested in trying something new and, consequently, the product scarcely moved from behind the counter.

Not willing to give up on irradiated beef altogether, they stocked the freezer case with frozen irradiated ground beef. Again, shoppers failed to show an interest in the product and Highland Park decided to pull the irradiated beef from their store altogether.

"We'd buy a dozen packages, sell two and throw the rest away so we decided to stop selling it for now," he continued. "We'd definitely bring it back if we heard a lot of shoppers talking about it and asking for it, but the public will have to become a lot more aware of irradiated beef before we see that happening."

Taking a wait-and-see approach to irradiated ground beef is Penn Traffic Co., which owns more than 200 stores in Ohio, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

"If we decide to offer irradiated ground beef, we'll put out point-of-purchase material and do a lot of advertising to help educate our shoppers," said Steve Erdley, vice president of the operator's meat, seafood and deli division. "We've watched our competitors do this already, so if we start carrying irradiated ground beef, some of the people who shop our stores will already know about it."

For now, Penn Traffic's stores purchase coarse ground beef from suppliers that pretest the meat for harmful bacteria, in step with government regulations. All of their stores then further process it within their meat departments, a procedure that will continue regardless of the type of beef they use in the future, said Erdley.

"Processing ground beef in our stores helps us differentiate ourselves from our competitors, places like Wal-Mart in particular, that carry case-ready ground beef. Plus, ours is fresher, which helps our image," he said.

"There's also a financial benefit as it's more considerably more profitable for us to process ground beef in our stores rather than buying case-ready. And, having people in our stores to provide face-to-face service is something that stores like Wal-Mart don't provide," Erdley said.

Sterk's Super Foods, the nine-store grocery chain based in Hammond, Ind., is another supermarket that has yet to take an interest in irradiated ground beef, or even case-ready products. Instead, the stores have focused significant energy on more traditional in-house sanitation and control practices, said Kevin Copper, a store manager.

"We package our own beef and have people in our stores that are certified in sanitation who work to ensure that our ground beef is as safe as it can be," said Copper. "We've become a lot more conscious of the importance of handling beef carefully and we closely follow the guidelines set by the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and other government agencies."

From the point that fresh beef comes through Sterk's back doors until it passes through the checkout line, a series of checks and balances are observed, he said. Sterk's meat department employees quickly move the incoming product into coolers that are regularly checked for adequate temperature.

Meat-processing rooms are also kept at suitable temperatures for preparing the food; cleaning areas and grinders are subject to rigorous sanitation regimens; and each package is checked for the desired air-tight seal.

"We also try to monitor the code dates as closely as possible and pull packages that are getting close to the sell-by dates," said Copper. "It's a diligent process, but it's been working well for us so we'll continue it until we feel that a change is necessary. We just haven't looked into the irradiation concept at this time."