Tougher Standards Battle Meat Bacteria


Florida meat suppliers have been at the center of the struggle to kill off harmful bacteria and make food safer.

Eleven-year-old Tyler Roberts got desperately ill in April after eating a hamburger at his Danielsville, Ga., elementary school. At the hospital, a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria was diagnosed. The infection was so severe that Tyler's kidneys must be monitored for life.

Tyler recovered, but the Florida supplier of meat to his school did not. Ocala's Bauer Meat Co., after multiple run-ins last year with federal and state inspectors over tainted meat, was shut down Aug. 12. One day later, company owner and president Frank Bauer committed suicide. On Sept. 1, Bauer Meat declared bankruptcy. Its assets are being liquidated. Next week, attorneys for Tyler's parents are expected to file suit against Bauer Meat for negligence.

Bauer's tale of woe is a nasty reminder to consumers and meat processors in an industry reeling from a series of high-profile, massive meat recalls blamed on bacterial contamination.

Since last summer, at least three meat processors in Florida have had to recall meat because of bacterial contamination. One of the nation's biggest recalls, involving millions of pounds of contaminated meat, occurred last fall with the shutdown of Sara Lee Corp.'s 1,200-employee Bil Mar processing plant in Zeeland, Mich. Big names in meats including Hormel and Oscar Meyer also have had recalls. Another big processor, Thorn Apple Valley Inc., on Friday was reported to be under criminal investigation by the USDA after the Michigan meat processor recalled as much as 30-million pounds of possibly contaminated meat.

One U.S. Department of Agriculture program that samples ground beef found more E. coli-contaminated meat in 1998 than in the past four years combined.

The outbreaks reflect big changes in the industry. Feed lots and meat processing companies are consolidating. One result is that a hamburger now can include meat ground from 30 animals. Tougher meat inspection standards also are increasing the volume of recalls nationwide. Two kinds of bacteria, E. coli 0157:H7 and Listeria, that are behind most of the recent recalls are proving hard to eliminate. And consumers, driven by heightened recall publicity and improved diagnoses and reporting of food poisoning, are demanding a crackdown by government agencies to improve the safety of the nation's meat supply.

"We're in an enormous bind," said Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, a Washington trade group that represents the meat processing industry. "We want to achieve zero tolerance of contaminants, but we are lacking the technology."

That could change. Trying to improve food safety, the USDA on Friday proposed allowing meat processors to sterilize raw meat and several products with radiation. But meat irradiation has been resisted by consumers for years. And it is unclear whether they will accept a process they know little about, or whether the industry will widely adopt the process.

To be sure, some meat processors say regulators and the public are overreacting to recent recalls. In Zeeland, Mich., the home of Sara Lee's Bil Mar plant, the talk is of "Listeria hysteria."

New inspection systems tend to find bacteria more often. But that does not mean bacteria was not in processed meat before. Meat processing standards are getting better, not worse, says Steve Saterbo, an owner of Colorado Boxed Beef Co. in Auburndale.

Saterbo likens overzealous meat inspections to throwing a container of salt on the table and finding one grain with bacteria. What does it prove? Processed meat that is completely E. coli-free does not exist, he says, and won't exist until slaughterhouse standards improve or until meat is irradiated.

"It's a tragedy what is happening to this industry," said Saterbo, whose plant last fall faced a meat recall but is again supplying big customers such as Albertsons and Wal-Mart. "People have a better chance of being killed by an old lady who can't drive."

+++When E. coli bacteria is found in meat, typically it is the result of contamination by animal feces at the time of slaughter. The strain of E. coli known as E. coli 0157:H7 - the same strain that attacked Tyler Roberts - has more severe effects on people. E. coli was behind numerous multistate outbreaks, including the deadly Pacific Northwest incident of tainted hamburgers served by Jack-In-The-Box restaurants in 1993, and the 1996 scare from the bacteria in unpasteurized apple juice distributed by Odwalla in 1996.

In 1997, E. coli was responsible for the massive recall of meat at Arkansas-based Hudson Foods Co., which supplied frozen ground-beef patties for such national chains as Burger King, Boston Market, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. After the recall, Hudson Foods was merged into longtime rival Tyson Foods.

E. coli is a relatively fragile bacteria and can be killed by making sure meat is cooked well to a minimum internal temperature of at least 160 degrees. E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration. It is most serious for the very young, the elderly and people with weak immune systems.

More onerous is Listeria bacteria. Considered 10 years ago to have been nearly eradicated from food products, Listeria is on the rebound and has become tougher to eradicate. It can live in processing plants - in drains, walls and the nooks of processing equipment. It can survive refrigeration. It is resistant to cleaning agents.

When consumed, Listeria can cause symptoms that include high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea. While healthy people rarely get sick from the bacteria, it can be a serious problem for the elderly, pregnant women, infants and people with weak immune systems. And Listeria isn't found only in processed meat. The bug has prompted recent recalls of milk pasteurized in Minnesota and chicken burritos made in Chicago.

The current Listeria outbreak, attributed mostly to the Sara Lee plant in Michigan, has proved deadly. As of Feb. 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 16 deaths and 73 illnesses in 14 states. Of the 16 deaths, five were stillbirths or miscarriages, reflecting the particular susceptibility of fetuses to the pathogen.

Between 1989 and 1993, the rate of illness from Listeria dropped 44 percent. But there has been no further progress to reduce the rate of illness. That worries the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, Dr. Catherine E. Woteki. More Listeria outbreaks are likely, she predicted. Some experts want warning labels on hot dogs and other processed meats.

"We need to look at all of our options - manufacturing practices, regulation, research, new technologies, labeling and education," Woteki told an audience in Washington last week, days before the USDA proposed the use of irradiation on a wide range of processed meats.

A supposedly tougher federal meat inspection system was put in place several years ago at larger meat processing plants. Eventually, it will be used in all 6,000 federally inspected plants. The system, the first new meat inspection program in 92 years, was meant to be better than the old "poke and sniff" methods meat inspectors used.

Now some critics say the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (or HACCP, pronounced "has-sip") system isn't working because it allows companies to write their own bio-safety plans against E. coli and Listeria. Industry advocates such as Riley of the American Meat Institute argue the system works well but needs more time.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, says that while the old inspection system needed changes, the new system needs tougher standards. She recommends the new system complement, rather than replace, older inspection methods that relied on sight, touch and smell.

Apparently some inspectors aren't convinced the HACCP system has enough teeth. They joke that HACCP really stands for "Have A Cup of Coffee and Pray."

Bill Marler, one of the lawyers representing young Tyler Roberts in the lawsuit against Bauer Meat, has built a career suing companies like Jack-In-The-Box and Odwalla for selling tainted food products.

The only way the entire meat processing industry will toughen its standards enough to reduce or eliminate bacteria outbreaks is for buyers to stop buying meat from suppliers with poor track records, the Seattle lawyer says. That is what Jack-In-The-Box did after its 1993 nightmare with tainted hamburger meat.

"What responsible companies should do is use their economic leverage against suppliers and slaughterhouses," said Marler, whose two young children have never eaten red meat. "Companies should say: "We will not tolerate contaminated product - period.' "