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Zapping Ground Beef Worries

For Reasons Relating to Both Safety and Sales, Irradiated Ground Beef is Finding a Home in the Full Service Segment

We don't have to tell you that operating a restaurant is a risky proposition. But if you want to ascertain just how sensationally risky it really is, connect to the Internet, swallow hard, and type into your browser's address line.

Click once and you'll be transported to the home page of Marler Clark, L.L.P., a Seattle-based personal injury law firm that enjoys a national reputation in the field of foodborne illness litigation. If you serve ground beef at your restaurant, what you'll find there could be pretty scary.

Who are these guys? Marler is the attorney who won big settlements for the victims in the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli incident. Clark represented Jack-in-the-Box in those cases; he's Marler's partner now. Good luck if your restaurant has a food safety problem and this firm gets on your case. Their most recent lawsuit wound up in a settlement for a girl who alleged she contracted E. coli infection from eating a hamburger at a unit of the In-N-Out hamburger chain. The settlement amount was undisclosed, but because Marler Clark put out a PR release, complete with photo of the victim, to note the occasion, you can assume it was big.

The problem in this instance was that the chain toasted its hamburger buns on the same grill where beef patties were cooked, creating a scenario where the buns could potentially became contaminated by the juice of raw or under-cooked meat. In-N-Out swore the process was safe; they wound up settling.

The Marler Clark web site is loaded with updates on the status of this and other E. coli lawsuits around the country. You'd think the intense scrutiny given to restaurant food safety practices after the Jack-in-the-Box incident, plus the rigorous HACCP programs now in place, would have put an end to E. coli problems. No such luck. There are far more cases than you'd dare think, and it's a problem that's worth avoiding at any cost. Which may be why full service restaurants that serve ground beef have redoubled their efforts to avoid this problem.

Surprisingly, two chains that have done so report increased sales of hamburgers as a result of their efforts. Both Embers America, a 65-unit family-style chain whose operations are concentrated in the upper Midwest, and Colorado-based Champps Americana introduced hamburgers processed with the SureBeam irradiation system last summer. Each chain makes a big deal about serving irradiated burgers. They market them through table tents, posters and mentions on their menus, and have trained waitstaffers to handle customers.

The payoff? To date, Embers reports its monthly hamburger sales are up between eight and 10 percent, while Champps says its hamburger sales growth rate has been in the 10-12 percent range. Embers plans to run TV commercials this summer that play up irradiated burgers; the chain thinks sales will double.

Also on board is Richmond, Virginia-based food distributor Performance Food Group. This year, the company began to ship irradiated ground beef products to its customers. PFG now offers a line of ten different ground beef products under its West Creek Brand. Each sports a "Smart Shield" designation on its its label. "Our customers can now enjoy the benefit of knowing that they are protecting themselves and their customers with a safer ground beef product," says PFG's breadline president, Steve Spinner.


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