The decade that changed everything

by Steve Bjerklie
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Every 20th century decade since the end of World War II can make a claim to be the most influential in recent US meat and poultry industry history. The 1950s brought a revolution in grocery-store marketing and meat retailing that still influences the meat case today. The 1960s saw the emergence of boxed beef and a new kind of packing company. The 1970s had furious labor battles as the industry reshaped around newly dominant companies; brought the closing of the Chicago Stockyards, signaling the end of old industry history; and saw the emergence of powerful consumer organizations. And the 1980s featured the emergence of poultry as the nation’s most popular animal protein, significant industry consolidation, a powerful new word for labor and management alike (“ergonomics”), and the beginnings of the natural and organic meat trends.

But the 1990s … had there ever been a decade before (or since, for that matter) that has so radically altered the very nature of meat and meat processing?

Consider:

• In 1990, few people outside of a few meat scientists and bacteriologists had ever heard of E. coli O157:H7, but by 1995 the pathogen had completely upended meat processing systems and inspection.

• In 1990, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) protocol was barely known outside of a few quality-control labs, efficiency experts and NASA. By 1995, HACCP was the foundation of federal meat inspection.

• She had been a well-known industry consultant as well as a regular columnist for MEAT+POULTRY’s predecessor publication, Meat Industry, since the late 1970s, but the 1996 publication of “An Anthropologist on Mars” by Dr. Oliver Sacks brought international attention and fame to Dr. Temple Grandin, her autism, and her work with animals. (The book’s chapter on Grandin had been published in 1995 in The New Yorker magazine.) In turn, this brought new attention, some of it unwanted, to animal welfare. By decade’s end, animal welfare had become entwined with food safety and pathogen control as top-tier concerns for the industry.

• Before 1990, “organic” referred to either a kind of chemistry loathed by high school students or to a kind of farmer who still wore tie-dye from the ’60s. In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act legitimized and regulated a new industry segment that was not only producing billions of dollars a year in meat and poultry retail sales but was also, by far, the industry’s fastest-growing segment.

• In 1990, the US exported 3.2 percent of total red meat production. By 2000, the share had climbed to 8.1 percent even as total US agricultural exports remained flat as a share of total agricultural production.

Pop goes the weasel

For the meat industry, the 1990s truly began in late November 1992 when 11 production lots of hamburger patties contaminated by E. coli O157:H7 were produced by a Jack in the Box supplier and distributed to Jack in the Box stores in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada. By early January 1993, a cluster of cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) caused by consumption of the contaminated patties was reported to the Washington state Department of Health. By the end of the month, more than 600 people in Washington state, many of them children, reported symptoms; 144 were hospitalized, 30 developed HUS, and three – all children – died. The numbers were smaller for the other states, and just one other person – again, a child – died, in California.

A total of 73 Jack in the Box stores were implicated in the outbreak, and soon the company was on the brink of going out of business. (By the time all the individual and class-action lawsuits had been settled, more than $50 million had been paid out to E. coli victims and their families.)

Bill Clinton in the 90s.
After the Jack in the Box incident, then-President Bill Clinton called for hearings on the safety of the food supply.
In the larger picture, the Jack in the Box outbreak both mystified and terrified the meat industry, especially ground beef processors. President Bill Clinton called for hearings on the safety of the food supply, and to a degree never seen before, meat processing procedures, systems, and companies came under the bright light of media scrutiny and public inquiry. By the spring of 1993, USDA announced a zero-tolerance policy for fecal contamination of beef carcasses, and in September of that year, then-director of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Michael Taylor, Ph.D., reclassified E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant, giving FSIS new powers of regulatory authority for the pathogen.

In the end, the 1993 E. coli crisis resulted in a potent new regulation law and a lot of changed minds. Industry scientists and executives who had initially been skeptical of HACCP gradually came to embrace the protocol, especially after David Theno, Ph.D., who earned the reputation as “the man who saved Jack in the Box,” forcefully made the case for HACCP’s efficacy at dozens of hearings, forums and industry conventions. For months, he began his presentations by showing a photograph of Lauren Rudolph, one of the first E. coli victims, who died when she was 6 years old.

The insistence by some in the industry that if consumers simply cooked their hamburgers thoroughly there wouldn’t be a problem eventually gave way to a more realistic, consumer-friendly view. Meanwhile, Dell Allen, Ph.D., chief food safety scientist at Cargill’s Excel division and an ardent supporter of as well as mentor to Theno, introduced the test-and-hold protocol at Excel, which was initially scoffed at by many industry executives as too expensive and potentially wasteful. But Allen was proved right: test-and-hold’s efficacy made it today’s industry standard.

Pathogen reduction and HACCP

The new regulation was the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Systems (HACCP) Rule, published in final form in 1996. In the rule, FSIS made clear that its food safety goal is “to reduce the risk of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of meat and poultry products to the maximum extent possible by ensuring that appropriate and feasible measures are taken at each step in the food-production process where hazards can enter and where procedures and technologies exist or can be developed to prevent the hazard or reduce the likelihood it will occur,” as stated in a history of HACCP written by Karen Hulebak, Ph.D. and Wayne Schlosser, PhD., both of USDA.

“With respect to major enteric pathogens that contaminate meat and poultry products during the slaughter process, FSIS stated in this rulemaking that it believed the risk of foodborne illness associated with these pathogens is largely avoidable and can be minimized by proper implementation of HACCP,” Hulebak and Schlosser wrote. “The agency was clear that implementation of HACCP did not mean the absolute elimination of pathogens, rather preventing and reducing contamination with pathogenic microorganisms to a degree that very substantially reduces and minimizes the risk of foodborne illness.”

David Theno and HACCP
Dave Theno, Ph.D., made the case for HACCP's efficacy at dozens of hearings, forums and industry conventions.
The 1990s brought other changes, of course, but none of the magnitude of E. coli and HACCP. Before E. coli and the Jack in the Box food safety crisis, the industry largely operated by the “sell it or smell it” rule, which it had for decades. After E. coli and all that followed, no one in the meat business ever thought “sell it or smell it” was a viable way to manage food safety.

The decade also brought one other significant change worth mentioning, though it is somewhat narrowly focused. In 1995, Sosland Publishing Co. bought what was then called Meat&Poultry magazine and moved its editorial and advertising offices from the Bay Area in California to Kansas City, Mo. The purchase and move placed the publication within the traditional heart of the industry and also helped it gather several editorial awards for high-quality journalism. Now called MEAT+POULTRY, it is still published by Sosland in Kansas City.

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