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Do Meat and Poultry Handling Labels Really Convey Safety?
by Darin Detwiler, M.A.Ed.
Only weeks after the Clinton administration and new Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy took office in 1993, the USDA initiated a public education program in response to the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that hit the Pacific Northwest. The USDA wanted to ensure that the public understood not only how to handle raw meat and poultry products safely, but also how to properly cook it. Families at home, as well as cooks at restaurants, needed to be brought up to date with more accurate cooking temperatures.
Washington state law, at the time of the outbreak, required restaurants and institutions to cook hamburger patties to an internal temperature of 155 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas the federal standard was only 140 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a 1995 article in the Spokesman Review (Spokane, Wash.) newspaper, Bert Bartleson, technical expert for the state health department’s food program investigating the outbreak stated that “had Jack in the Box followed state regulations, which mandated that hamburgers be cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees, the  epidemic would have been prevented.” He also pointed out that “State law [of 155 degrees] superseded a federal guideline at the time of 140 degrees...Either [Jack in the Box] didn’t believe in science, or they didn’t read the literature. If they followed the standards...no one would have gotten sick.” The FDA and USDA have since revised federal requirements, increasing cooking temperatures for raw meat to 155 degrees.
Many have called the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak the “9/11 of the meat industry.” This multistate event went far beyond just some people getting sick. According to the CDC, the state health departments of Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and California received reports of over 600 cases. Approximately 150 people were hospitalized, and of those 37 developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, and of those four young children died, including my 17-month-old son, Riley.
The day I buried Riley, I stood there with so many questions and such a rage inside. Only months prior, I was operating a nuclear reactor on a Navy submarine—I had never heard of E. coli. How did this happen to my son, to my family, to the American consumer? How could this be prevented from ever happening again?
Espy proclaimed that, in the absence of a way to detect or prevent the presence of the bacteria, the USDA must do “everything [it] can do to help inform consumers about proper preparation and storage of not-ready-to-eat meat and poultry.” In the wake of the outbreak, the USDA’s new Pathogen Reduction Program included a consumer awareness portion described as a “bold action” to educate the general public. The program included the mandated use of Food Safe Handling Labels affixed to packages of raw meat and poultry. For the last two decades, this has been the most visible device the USDA has employed to educate consumers about food safety as the USDA requires these instructions to be displayed on all packages of raw (or not-ready-to-eat) meat and poultry sold in the U.S. Unfortunately, I believe that the information on these labels was incomplete from the start.
In a 1993 discussion with Espy, I specifically asked why the cooking information was vague. He responded that because meat and poultry have different cooking temperatures, having those different temperatures listed may lead to confusion on the part of the consumer. He also stated that if there were different labels to be applied to different kinds of meat, mislabeling could occur at the plant or at the grocery store.
I left that meeting with a want to learn more about the kinds of cooking messages that they had previously used. Through some USDA contacts in D.C., I was able to find a 1990 Food Safety Inspection Service fact bulletin in which the USDA simply stated:
“Cook meat and poultry thoroughly—meat to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and poultry to at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a meat thermometer is the best way to ensure that large cuts of meat are done. Greyish color and clear juices show when patties and individual pieces are done.”
This warning indicated that more detailed information can be put out in a simple, precise way that would not require different labels for many products. Why didn’t the USDA use this? Jeremy Rifkin, then the leader of a consumer coalition group called Beyond Beef, criticized the USDA on this as he stated how the information was insufficient, thus creating a weak message. His group even demanded that “Cook thoroughly” be replaced with more explicit instructions.
Though many newspapers across the country reported that the USDA’s decision was motivated by the 1993 E. coli outbreak, there was one more motivating factor for their decision. In May of 1993, the government agreed to require the Food Safe Handling Labels as part of its settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Beyond Beef coalition in Washington, D.C.’s U.S. District Court. The creation and mandates of the labels were not so much a result of the goodness of the USDA as they were part of a judicial order required by the department to carry out.
On October 14, 1993, one day before the initial rule of the labeling was to take effect, the National American Wholesale Grocers Association convinced a Texas federal judge to issue an injunction to delay the labeling because “unlabeled meat was not a significant health threat, and that the tainted meat outbreak in January was isolated to the Pacific Northwest.” Ironically, though sad, only two weeks later, the Texas State Department of Health issued a statewide warning similar to the one contained in the USDA’s intended Food Safe Handling Labels because of the deaths of two 3-year-old Texas boys from E. coli.
Though some stores voluntarily labeled their meat packages, the required labeling did not start until May 27, 1994—and even then, only ground meat products required labeling. All other meat and poultry products required labeling as of July 6, 1994. According to the Pathogen Reduction Program’s description of consumer awareness in the Federal Register, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will “inform consumers of the risks associated with unsafe food handling.” However, in order to get the federal judge to release the injunction, the labels had to be designed in such a way that they would state proper handling techniques, but not any health hazards.
“This product was inspected for your safety. Some animal products may contain bacteria that could cause illness if the product is mishandled or cooked improperly.”
This message does not warn consumers of the possible dangers associated with meats in general. Instead, the issue is now discussed in terms of a public health, not an industry or USDA, problem.
I was dissatisfied that the labels do not identify any potential hazards. Neither E. coli, nor any other foodborne pathogen is named on the labels. I was not surprised that the labels don’t explain how the bacteria get into the meat in the first place. What angered me the most, however, was that the labels do not describe the severity or the consequences of the problem to consumers. While I focused on the fact that words such as “may” and “could” make the problem sound insignificant, I also understood that not every package of meat will be contaminated. I had already been unwillingly dragged into the meat version of the game Russian Roulette—I knew far too well that there is a great difference between something that “could cause illness” and something that could cause toddlers to suffer and, in too many cases, die.
The lesson I learned next, however, was something that has been one of the most painful elements of the tragedy of my son’s death that I have carried for the last two decades. Work with the USDA relating to educating consumers was thwarted by the efforts of the industry and the dual responsibilities of the USDA. Some of the department’s administrators and assistants expressed concern over the pressures associated with the labels and with public awareness in general from within the industry, as some meat groups feared that an educated public would stop buying their product. Even the USDA was apprehensive of giving the consumer too much information as the consumer may not only be motivated to stop old behaviors associated with the products, but be motivated to discontinue purchasing the product as well. This highlights an inherent conflict of interest for the USDA, for its charge is not only to regulate the quality of meat, but also to promote the sale and use.
According to a spokesperson for the American Meat Institute, “Warning labels really frighten the public, if consumers follow safe handling procedures, there’s no need to scare people about what is really a very wholesome and nutritious product.” This description of the clean product may be very easy for the general public to believe, but what if a product is contaminated? In its 1990 FSIS fact bulletin, the USDA described contaminated meat and poultry as causing “thousands of individual cases, hundreds of outbreaks, and several deaths each year.” The USDA went on to report “6.5 – 8.1 million Americans may actually suffer [foodborne illness] symptoms each year.” Mind you, this statement was made in 1990—four years before the USDA declared E. coli as an adulterant and well before reporting of illnesses from many food sources, let alone the systems to report, record, and monitor were in place.
Perhaps by placing a weak message on the labels, the USDA was at least able to mandate that some form of food safe handling instructions be placed on every package of meat and poultry sold in the U.S. for the last 20 years. But requiring labels and enforcing their use is two different things. I have visited plenty of grocery stores with their own butcher and packaging stations in which labels were not used on the products.
Detwiler is a graduate lecturer on the economic and social aspects of food at Northeastern University. In the 1990s, he worked with USDA in the early days of their Pathogen Reduction Program to gain the federal regulation of food safe handling labels on meat. He holds an FDA certification as a food science educator and served two terms as a USDA regulatory policy advisor on the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection. Detwiler continues to consult about the history of food safety legislation and can be reached at email@example.com.