Recall, stricter safety rules pinch US beef industry


RANGE CITY, Iowa - Tom Brayton grew up in Iowa farm country and never thought he'd stop eating beef.

Then his 20-month-old son, Nicolaus, died from an E. coli infection, and now Brayton can't bring himself to bite into a hamburger. He says it's just too risky, pointing to several incidents in recent months that have prompted recalls of millions of pounds of ground beef from stores nationwide.

''We have warnings on cigarettes. We have warnings on alcoholic beverages. We need warnings on beef, too. Warning: this meat could kill you,'' said Brayton, who now lives in New Jersey. ''It could take one hamburger. With cigarettes, it could take a thousand packs to do damage. With alcohol, it could take years. With beef, there's no warning.''

Such labels won't be on meat any time soon. But this month, the US Department of Agriculture did publish new rules meant to tighten the safety net. The regulations require plants that slaughter cattle and grind beef to recognize the risk of E. coli and take steps to fight it.

Consumer advocates say the measure won't do enough, and the USDA admits it may need more money from Congress to make real changes. At the same time, industry representatives argue the rules won't make food any safer - but could hurt business.

The USDA report outlines findings that show E. coli is more pervasive in the beef supply than it has previously recognized and tells companies to reevaluate their official management plans in light of that news. The largest plants have until Dec. 6 to do so; the smallest have until April 7.

The nation's 1,500 beef slaughtering and grinding plants already update those plans and submit them to the agency every year. But now, the government says, they'll come under closer scrutiny than they have in the past.

That could be a crucial move. In a report issued last month, the General Accounting Office found that only about 1 percent of all Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans undergo stringent scientific review.

''We're not touting this as some sort of silver bullet that's going to completely eliminate E. coli,'' said Steve Cohen, spokesman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the arm of the USDA responsible for monitoring meat. ''But we think that until something like that is found, that this will improve greatly our ability to ensure that the E. coli, if it exists, does not make its way into the ground beef.''

E. coli, which can cause violent illness and even death in humans, shows up in cows' feces and can be ground into the meat. Packers may try to clean it off by exposing meat to hot steam or ''washing'' it with acids.

But because grinders don't usually turn a single steak into hamburger - instead mixing meats from different steers or even different farms into each batch of ground beef - one contaminated cut can spread the pathogen.

The new policy urges packers not to mix beef from separate providers when grinding. It also eliminates exemptions that let some plants avoid random testing and suggests that larger cuts of meat should be tested as well.

Meat packers claim they already do all they can to eliminate the problem and say the new USDA rules are only going to make it easier for inspectors to stop production.

''What we're concerned about is suddenly you're going to see more plants being closed, but you're not getting at the true problem,'' said Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, which represents meat and poultry processors. ''Shutting a plant down doesn't make the bacteria go away.''

Analysts estimated that the ConAgra Beef Co., which last summer had the second-largest beef recall in US history - 19 million pounds - could have lost as much as $10 million.

In the latest round of recalls, Cargill's Emmpak Foods Inc. pulled nearly 3.4 million pounds of ground beef that was sold in grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants. The recalls started at the end of September after 57 people got sick, and the USDA is still investigating to see whether about 20 other illnesses in four states are linked.

The company has shut down its Milwaukee plant, idling 160 workers. Justin Segal, Emmpak's president, figures the company loses about $400,000 each day the plant is closed.

And although no estimates were available on how much the new rules could cost the industry, beef processors have already spent about $400 million on techniques to stop E. coli, according to Steve Kay, who publishes the industry newsletter Cattle Buyers Weekly. Tyson Foods subsidiary IBP Fresh Meats Inc. alone has spent more than $100 million on food safety measures.

Small companies have been forced to sell out to big corporations, and even some of the giants - such as Hudson Foods, which in 1997 had the largest beef recall ever, pulling back 25 million pounds - have gotten out of beef altogether.

''This pathogen has been destructive in many ways,'' Kay said. ''It's obviously made people sick and caused deaths, which is the first tragedy. But the other is it's put very good companies out of business. It has literally changed the face of the industry.''

But critics say the latest recalls show companies still aren't doing enough.

''When you have outbreaks of 25 to 50 people who are sick, when you have massive recalls, it's clear that the safety net has gaping holes today,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ''We're not experiencing small problems. We're experiencing massive problems.''

The USDA is putting 100 new inspectors into plants who will be trained to look for just such failings. And Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has tried to give the USDA more authority to hand out fines and recall food when plants fail inspection.

But specialists say it's impossible to block E. coli all the time without cooking or irradiation - which many consumers don't want. ''Until we implement a procedure that will eliminate contamination, we shouldn't be surprised to find it in our meat,'' said John Sofos, an agriculture professor at Colorado State University.

That's something too few people know, says Tom Brayton, whose son died after a cookout two summers ago. He has received a settlement from the local butcher who sold him the meat and is in a legal battle with IBP, and now speaks regularly to raise awareness of the issue.

''If you asked most people would they say it's OK if one hamburger out of 100 is contaminated by feces, they'd say no,'' Brayton said. ''If you saw what families have to go through, you'd have nightmares. You'd be like me.''