Bill Marler wrote yesterday evening (July 5, 2008):

“Frankly, I think the grocery stores – especially the big box types – need to take a more active role in seeing that plants like this perform – that is – they do not produce meat products contaminated with E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc. Perhaps stores should be less concerned about sales and more concerned with safety.”

Bill’s statement reminded me of an experience I had back in the mid-1990’s, when I was Research Director of QA Life Sciences, a company that developed and supplied rapid test systems to the food industry. One of our customers was a supermarket chain (not one of the Kroger’s group of companies).

My contact at Company X was the QA Manager (“Q”), an old-timer who felt a responsibility for the safety of the foods his employer sold to consumers. He was especially concerned about the beef and trimmings that Company X was purchasing for grinding, and he decided to put pressure on the company’s meat suppliers to clean up, or risk losing Company X’s business.

Q adopted our rapid test, which produced simultaneous counts of total E. coli and E. coli O157 within 24 hours. He could then determine the “H7” part of the E. coli O157:H7 within an additional 24 hours. After receiving grudging corporate management support for his plan, Q contacted Company X’s beef suppliers and proposed that they meet specific standards for total E. coli and for E. coli O157:H7.

Q was ahead of his time. USDA had recently (October 1994) named E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant in ground beef, but not in beef destined for grinding. He met stiff resistance from several of the company’s suppliers, especially for his E. coli O157:H7 proposal. Eventually, he was able to negotiate standards based on total E. coli and E. coli O157.

Why the resistance to completing the H7 portion of the test? Company X’s suppliers did not want to know that their beef was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Were they advised of a positive E. coli O157:H7, they would have to act on the knowledge. But if the test was limited to E. coli O157, the beef suppliers could accept returned meat that failed Company X’s standards and resell it to a less demanding customer.

Q told me on several occasions that his program was successful. The overall safety and cleanliness of Company X’s ground beef was much improved.

The beef screening program stayed in force until Q retired. Company X dropped the program soon afterward.

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