- 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
- 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
- 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
- * * *
- 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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.'