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Exposed at retail: grocers can expect fallout from recent food recalls, even though they didn't make any of the products.

E. COLI INFECTION IS A FOODBORNE ILLNESS THAT'S USUALLY HARMFUL AND OCCASIONALLY FATAL, both to people and to corporations. Last month it killed Topps Meat Co. in New Jersey and sickened Minnesota-based Cargill Meat Solutions. Before it's all over, some retailers may also be feeling a bit queasy as a result of the companies' separate recalls of frozen hamburger patties linked to the vicious E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.

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The Topps recall amounted to more than 21 million pounds, second in U.S. history only to the 25 million pounds of hamburger destroyed by Hudson Foods in 1997 after an E. coli outbreak was traced to one of its plants. A few weeks later Hudson sold out to Tyson Foods. Cargill's recall was much more modest, a bit less than 850,000 pounds, but it's not cheap to lose that much product. Add the expense of calling it all back, making the plant safe for production again and defending the inevitable lawsuits, and it's not hard to see how privately held Topps could have decided to throw in the towel; 10,500 tons of possibly contaminated ground beef would be a tough mountain to climb.

With or without Topps, a number of supermarkets may get stuck doing more than their share to clean up the mess. If someone was hospitalized from eating tainted hamburger bought at one of your stores, that's a legitimate news story for the local media regardless of what it might do to your business. The press has a responsibility to warn people about such things.

If the meat carried your private label, so much the worse, despite the fact that your only contribution to this outbreak consisted of accepting frozen product from a trusted, government-inspected supplier and putting it in your retail freezer case. If it hasn't already happened, you may be served with legal papers sooner or later, perhaps on behalf of someone represented by the attorneys who are offering free claim evaluations at www.ecoli-recall.com. In the case of Topps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture seems to have outsourced the job of looking out for meat consumers to the trial lawyers, a group that most of us thought the federal government didn't even like.

USDA delayed public notification for 18 days after preliminary tests indicated hamburger from Topps was linked to the E. coli outbreak that struck in eight states, sickening about 35 people. The connection was determined on Sept. 7. The department pressed Topps to announce the recall Sept. 25. If you're being sued by someone who got sick on some of that hamburger between those dates, you might be wondering what those people in Washington are doing with your tax dollars.

Fortunately, no one died, but that's no thanks to USDA. Waiting nearly three weeks to act not only put people's lives at risk, it was a pretty shabby way to treat the beef industry, which reportedly spends around $350 million a year on food safety. Compare the number and severity of E. coli outbreaks related to beef products in the 1990s to what we've been experiencing lately and you'll realize that the money is being well-spent. When a rare problem does occur, shouldn't the government jump in immediately to minimize the damage to both the public health and the industry's image?

USDA can't legally order recalls, it can merely press companies to issue them. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to change that, but you have to wonder how well the department would use the authority. After all, this is the agency that views as a threat to the legal, moral and social order of the nation anyone who suggests that its pathetic program of testing for mad cow disease is inadequate. But that's another beef.

Getting back to E. coli, the department said things had been really good for the last three years or so, and then problems developed this summer. Naturally, it's mystified as to how this could have happened.

Because of the industry's efforts, many of us had forgotten about beef as an E. coli problem. But we're not paid to stay on top of it. Besides, we were all worried about leafy greens. It's barely over a year since an E. coli outbreak traced to contaminated spinach killed three people and made 200 sick. That dwarfs the combined 40 illnesses and zero deaths linked to the Topps and Cargill recalls, although there could be additional cases because many of the hamburgers may be in the freezers of consumers who didn't pay attention to the recalls. Best case is they will all cook the meat thoroughly and nobody else will suffer.

If you're tired of hearing about E. coli, you can always turn your attention to salmonella. A few days after Topps went out of business, ConAgra Foods, Inc. issued a health alert about some of its pot pies potentially linked to a salmonella outbreak that grew to more than 200 cases in 35 states. Two days later it issued a recall. The pot pies were distributed under a number of big chain private labels as well as the Banquet brand.

Again, this is not the fault of any retailer. But every retailer sells these products or others like them. Every supermarket operator should have a plan in place for dealing with the fallout from such situations and knowledgeable people who can put it into action on a moment's notice. What happens if you don't and your competitors do?

Tom Weir can be reached at tweir@groceryheadquarters.com.
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Title Annotation:ON POINT
Author:Weir, Tom
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Nov 1, 2007
Words:924
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