Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: Dilemma in the deli

Can anyone recall a summer with so many recalls? The answer, unfortunately, is no. To be sure, last year was a troubling time for meat eaters. A flurry of well-publicized product callbacks made headlines beginning in July, when ConAgra withdrew nearly 19 million pounds of ground beef from the market in conjunction with an E. coli scare, the second-largest such recall.

A month later, GFI American, Inc. of Minneapolis recalled some 717,000 pounds of ground meat because of possible contamination, and shortly thereafter Moyer Packing Co., a Souderton, Pa.-based unit of Smithfield Foods, Inc., recalled more than 200,000 pounds of ground beef.

But the incident that earned the most exposure surfaced last September with the 27 million-pound withdrawal of Pilgrim's Pride turkey and chicken deli meat products that were reportedly responsible for a rare Listeria outbreak in seven Northeastern states that caused several fatalities and dozens of illnesses.

The poultry giant's Franconia, Pa. facility was fingered as the source of what became the U.S. Department of Agriculture's largest meat recall in history after inspectors found a Listeria infestation at the plant, which produced the deli products sold primarily under the Wampler brand. Production was halted Oct. 13 after the strain of Listeria monocytogenes that was said to have caused the deaths was found in the plant's drains.

Government and Wampler officials said none of the recalled meat products that were returned tested positive for the rare strain of Listeria that caused the outbreak and contended that there was no proof that Wampler's turkey deli meats and other ready-to-eat products were the sole cause of the illnesses.

Less than a month after the Wampler recall, the same rare strain of bacteria was found in processed deli products made by an unrelated company, Camden, N.J.-based J.L. Foods Co., which recalled 4.2 million pounds of turkey and chicken for possible Listeria contamination.

While both plants have since been given clean bills of health, what has yet to become clear is whether the wave of Listeria scares will permanently alter consumers' habits at retail deli counters. In and around the Philadelphia region, where the Wampler and J.L. Foods stories received considerable media attention, several retailers noted a shift away from turkey deli products in favor of non-poultry meats in the weeks following the recalls.

A spokesman for Acme Markets, the Malvern, Pa.-based unit of Albertsons, Inc., told a local newspaper that consumers were staying away from poultry items sold at its deli counters, despite the fact that the chain no longer carries Wampler products. Depending on the store, overall deli poultry sales declined as much as 20 percent in Acme's 138 supermarkets in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware.

Widespread impact

A meat director for Kulpsville, Pa.-based Clemens Markets was also quoted as saying that Wampler items were not moving as well as in the past. A supermarket operator in New Jersey who wished to remain anonymous told Progressive Grocer that his stores' turkey deli sales declined temporarily in the aftermath of the recalls.

The callbacks impacted hundreds of retailers in other parts of the country as well, including New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri, home of Schnuck Markets, Inc., which operates 102 stores and 93 pharmacies in six states.

Schnucks, which called back all Wampler's chicken breast meat on the heels of the expanded recall, pulled all of Wampler's fresh sliced chicken breast from its stores in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Its stores in Mississippi and Tennessee were not affected.

"Initially, Schnucks products were not involved," says Ed Meyer, v.p. of deli/seafood. "However, Wampler Foods took precautionary measures and expanded the recall to include fresh chicken breast, the kind sliced at our deli." Customers who purchased Wampler chicken breasts from the chain's delis were urged to return any remaining product to their nearest Schnucks store for a full refund, Meyer says.

Not surprisingly, the summer of meat recalls prompted a renewed push from both consumer advocacy groups and House and Senate Democrats to reform the laws that govern the federal food safety system. Currently, the USDA can only recommend that a company voluntarily recall food suspected of contamination, or threaten to remove federal meat inspectors from a plant that refuses to cooperate. The agency cannot compel a recall.

Some changes are already in the works, including the USDA's $5 million budget allocation earmarked to train 7,600 inspectors to expand their roles and look beyond individual contamination hotspots to identify potential hazards. The White House has backed the allocation, which is expected to be in the budget President Bush sends to Congress in March.

The department has made other changes, such as requiring that all beef plants undergo random government testing for E. coli rather than conduct their own E. coli checks as they have done previously. The agency also has required slaughterhouses to come up with new ways to prevent E. coli from entering the system, and similar rules are reportedly being discussed for Listeria and Salmonella.

'War on pathogens'

Elsa Murano, USDA's food safety division chief, recently told The Denver Post, "We want this as the opportunity to declare war on pathogens ... and break the cycle of these big recalls. There's no way I'm content with multimillion-pound recalls every year. The recall system is geared toward the plants and retailers to take the responsibility and go to the consumers, but it needs to be improved."

Says James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, "The recent recalls this past summer have served to refocus our efforts on eliminating Listeria on ready-to-eat items, but this is certainly not a new initiative."

When it was first recognized in 1986 that Listeria monocytogenes could be present on ready-to-eat items and be a potential vector for human illness, Hodges says the AMI Foundation—the nonprofit research, education, and information arm of the Washington, D.C.-based trade group—"went right to work to try to diagnose and understand the problem, and it's been a continual effort ever since."

The job of assuring microbiological food safety is unending, Hodges says, noting that, instead of panicking, consumers should take heart from the considerable progress that has been made.

"If you look at the incident rates of Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat products as reported by [USDA's] Food Safety and Inspection Service and look at illnesses related to Listeriosis as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have had dramatic drops over the last decade. But that doesn't mean we have completely solved the problem," Hodges says.

Because Listeria is a widespread organism that constantly comes into a plant environment through people, products, and equipment, Hodges says, the job of preventing the organism from being harbored is inordinately difficult. "Thermal processes destroy the organism, but unless we have scrupulous sanitation—and by this I don't mean visually clean, but microbially clean facilities—it's a constant effort."

Aside from sanitation, Hodges says, the industry's second line of defense is in the tremendous amount of work done over the last several years with reformulation of products to prevent the growth of Listeria monocytogenes.

"It takes relatively high numbers of the bacteria to cause illness," he says. "And while those illnesses are very few in number as compared to other pathogens that could be present in the entire food supply, it's a very serious illness. As such, we take our responsibility very, very seriously, and when we have an outbreak such as what occurred last summer, it not only draws more attention to the issue, but is something that highlights the difficult nature of the task."

Plant design is yet another aspect of the foundation's focus. "Long before the outbreaks last summer, we designated a sanitary plant design task force to come up with principles of equipment design to prevent the harborage of Listeria monocytogenes, and the task force continues to fine tune the efforts that have been under way for several years," Hodges says.

He says retailers' role centers squarely on maintaining "vigilant, scrupulous sanitation procedures in their deli operations as well. Listeria doesn't just come in on product; it can just as easily come in on people, and reducing any risk of cross-contamination in a product-handling environment is key."

In view of the daunting battle the meat industry faces, not only with microbial pathogens, but also with the government and pressures from the media and consumer groups, Hodges says: "Frankly, I don't think we've done as good of a job as we could have of telling the story of all the work and progress that's been done by the AMI Foundation."

Noting that analytical and sampling techniques were much less sensitive when the industry's battle was first waged, Hodges says the incidence rate on deli meats was upwards of 10 percent. "It is below 1 percent today, so we've definitely made progress."

He continues: "Our members, which have contributed $3.6 million strictly for food safety research, have dedicated themselves to this effort." Most recently, Hodges says, the foundation released results of a number of promising studies on new applications, sanitation controls, and new types of ingredients and additives aimed at containing Listeria monocytogenes.

"This is serious business to us," he says. "We cannot expect to maintain consumer confidence and have people enjoy our products without making every possible effort we can to make sure product is safe. Outbreaks with Listeria should not be a part of the picture. We don't want to deal with them, and we're doing everything we can to make our incidence rate as low as possible."
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