Editor's Note: A very high price paid for convenience

April 10, 2003
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Over the past few months our industry has been experiencing very perplexing situations in some meat processing plants, culminating in the announcement of the largest ever meat recall of 27.4 million pounds.

Last month in this column, I suggested that often times simple solutions can be the answer to complex problems. Over the past few months our industry has been experiencing very perplexing situations in some meat processing plants, culminating in the announcement of the largest ever meat recall of 27.4 million pounds.

Clean-up and start-up of the plants now under the government’s watchful eye cannot be resolved quickly. As a result, the reassurance of consumer confidence in some food products may continue to be a problem for quite some time.

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 1,000 times on the pages of Food Engineering and you have read about it in all newspapers and seen numerous reports on television: consumers want fresh tasting, restaurant quality entrees and sides dishes on supermarket shelves at an affordable price. Some convenience foods such as luncheon meats have been around for decades, and in my memory there have not been too many safety related problems. But the challenge of manufacturing more and more choices of safe, high quality, prepared foods will continue to be a major challenge for the food industry.

Most consumers blame the manufacturer when a food safety problem arises. Many have no clue that they may have caused the problem themselves by leaving food unrefrigerated or not cooking it properly.

I see it all the time. As many times as I tell family and friends not to defrost meat on the kitchen counter, they keep on doing it. “Oh, nothing has ever happened to me,” they claim. Or they say, “ Why should I stop now? I’ve been doing that all my life.” Another comment I heard just this past weekend: “It would take me three years to defrost that chicken in the refrigerator.”

At the other extreme, some consumers I know are avoiding all makes and models of turkey deli meat because one plant had a problem. However, in my neck of the woods, the deli meat boycott may have had more of an impact because the plant in question is local.

Often consumer groups point the finger at manufacturers for food safety problems. Now some of them are placing the blame on President Bush, claiming that proposed USDA rules for Listeria written under the Clinton Administration are still in limbo.

While one, single, simple solution to the contamination problem and subsequent recall of any food product will never be found, the combination of simple solutions will certainly help.

Yes, of course, we need better consumer education and food safety communications plans. The government is suggesting that pregnant women, older adults and people with weakened immune systems should reheat hot dogs and luncheon meats until steaming hot. While I think most people will cook a hot dog until steaming hot, we all know that’s not going to happen with lunchmeat.

Why most consumers won’t cook and handle meat properly is no surprise to me. They are willing to take the chance because they have never been burned.

But now the food industry is getting burned, so we need to spend time on educating plant workers on good manufacturing practices. And we need to concentrate on better sanitary design of manufacturing plants.

None of these programs comes cheap, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than recalling millions of pounds of product and trying to win back consumer confidence.

As the food industry pays a high price in the ramifications of any recall, so too should the consumer realize that they may also have a high price to pay for the new, fresh types of products they demand if they chose not to handle products responsibly.

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