Sunday, September 28, 2003

Beef Industry Logs Successful Week In E. coli O147:H7 Battle; (September 26, 2003)

BEEF Magazine’s Cow Calf Weekly; By Joe Roybal: The last seven days have been a great week for the beef industry and its campaign against E.coli 0157:H7 in ground beef.

* First, came news (reported in last week's issue of BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly) that testing of 4,432 beef samples for E. coli O157:H7 by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in the first eight months of 2003 had shown a decrease of almost ½ of 1%. FSIS say that 0.32% of the ground beef samples tested positive for the pathogen in the first eight months of 2003, a significant drop from 2002, when 0.78% of samples tested for the pathogen, and the 2001 level of 0.84%.

Thus far this year, ground beef recalls have numbered but seven. Compared to the 20 recalls of 2002, which included a single 19-million-lb. recall in July by ConAgra, and the figures would seem to indicate that the industry is on the right track in trying to reduce the incidence of food-borne pathogens in its most popular and convenient product.

* On Wednesday of last week, Dairy Queen International expanded the availability of irradiated ground beef to 16 of its 32 Brazier locations in New Mexico. In addition, irradiated ground beef patties went on sale in 12 of 16 Dairy Queen®/Brazier® outlets in Erie, PA, and Buffalo, NY. That's on top of the just under 100 locations already offering irradiated patties in Minnesota and North and South Dakota.

* On Wednesday of this week, irradiated ground beef became available for the first time in Colorado full-service grocery stores. That's when 100 Kings Sooper supermarkets and 45 City Markets (part of the Kroger division) began carrying the products in 85% and 96% lean grade.

* The National Cattlemen's Beef Association announced at a feed yard meeting in Imperial, NE, on Tuesday that it is preparing educational materials regarding irradiation and beef safety for school district personnel and parents of schoolchildren. The materials, which Kim Essex, NCBA director of public relations, says will be available within a month, are intended to help educate those groups in preparation for the availability of irradiated ground beef products through the federal school lunch program in January 2004.

* In addition, last Friday, the Cattlemen's Beef Board Operating Committee gave the okay to a $150,000 authorization request by the American National Cattle Women (ANCW) to conduct a two-part, beef-safety education project over the next year. About 250 ANCW members have undergone training on ground beef safety and the benefits of ground beef irradiation. The ANCW plan will utilize those volunteers to conduct educational demonstrations in targeted urban areas emphasizing food safety, nutrition and awareness of irradiated ground beef.

For the first part, ANCW will send ground beef safety-trained ANCW members to 15 East Coast locales. This would be to states with either understaffed state beef councils or no council at all. The beef safety educational effort is targeted for schools, educational associations, women's expos and state fairs.

The project's second part involves sending ANCW volunteers to 20 events in states with beef councils. The volunteers would attend health fairs, educational conferences, food service meetings, etc. The aim is to reach parents, teachers, school administrators and food service people to teach them not only about the benefits and process of irradiation but also the need to continue use of safe food handling programs.

Let's hope that this commendable and farsighted move by the Operating Committee is just the first step in serious and visible support for ground beef safety via the promotion of irradiation as one of the tools to provide it.

The industry needs to bear in mind that while the FSIS figure of .32% seems like a small incidence, and the industry should be rightly proud if the accomplishment, the U.S. produces about 8 billion lbs. of ground beef annually. That means that the U.S. beef industry is still producing 25.6 million lbs. of beef contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.

When the most vulnerable among our consumers are our children, the elderly and the sick, those odds are still too darned high. The industry needs to use all the tools in its food-safety toolbox -- irradiation of ground beef being the most successful developed thus far.

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