Increase in Food Contamination : USDA Wants Warning Label on Uncooked Meat Packages

Times Staff Writer

Recent contamination episodes have prompted a federal regulatory proposal calling for revised labels on certain precooked meat products, such as hamburgers and sausage patties.

If adopted, the plan will mark the first time manufacturers are required to provide information that details proper temperatures for reheating meats sold in fully or partially cooked form.

The move, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is believed necessary because these products are easily mishandled and are being linked to numerous cases of food-borne illnesses, some of them severe.

The popularity of convenience foods, particularly ground meat-based entrees or sandwiches, has led to a proliferation of products in this category. And the pending regulation seeks to address any confusion among consumers and food service workers about preparing the items, some of which are sold under names such as “Char-Broiled Beef Patties,” “Salisbury Steak” or “Pre-Browned Fresh Pork Sausage Patties.”


Treat It as Raw

In essence, USDA wants manufacturers to inform consumers, via labeling, to treat these partially cooked meats as if they were raw.

In announcing the plan, federal officials sighted a recent outbreak of Escherichia coli among Minneapolis-area school children. The incident, which caused severe diarrhea and cramps, was linked to undercooked beef patties served at a school cafeteria. The implicated product was purportedly fully cooked, requiring only that servers reheat the meat.

Under the USDA proposal, all such products’ packaging will be required to carry language stating, “Partially Cooked: For Safety, Cook Until Well Done (Internal Meat Temperature of 160 degrees F).”

The statement, a veritable warning label, must be placed in a prominent position and be half the size of the product’s brand name. The requirement applies to fresh and frozen precooked meats.

Setting a Precedent

A federal official familiar with the USDA’s action said the proposal, which also addresses manufacturers’ in-plant handling practices, can be considered “precedent-setting.”

“These types of convenience foods are becoming more popular, and we have to go further with the kind of labeling we require (of manufacturers),” said Patricia Drayne of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Organisms can survive in products that consumers may mistakenly believe are fully cooked.”

The Minnesota outbreak, which resulted in six hospitalizations, was but the latest indication that these products pose a special risk if undercooked.

In fact, the department issued voluntary guidelines to the industry in 1985 after a salmonellosis outbreak in the Chicago area was also linked to undercooked beef patties. However, the growing number of illnesses due to the potentially fatal E. coli bacteria led the USDA to move toward mandatory labeling.

Furthermore, USDA officials recently announced that they were intensifying surveillance of beef for the presence of E. coli, which can also cause chronic kidney failure. FDA microbiologists believe that the pathogen is spreading throughout the country from beef produced in the northwestern United States. In recent months, E. coli has become the fourth most common food-borne illness in that region, a level that exceeds other parts of the country.

Meat patties, according to Drayne, provide some unique opportunities for bacteria growth.

“Ground beef is the kind of product that has lots of exposed surfaces, and it’s more likely that the contamination would be found throughout the product. (These conditions exist) because of the grinding and the increased handling that this kind of product receives,” Drayne said.

The USDA is accepting public comment on its proposal until Jan. 27 and estimates that about 130 companies will be directly affected by the plan.

To date, industry response has been muted.

A representative of the Washington-based American Meat Institute claimed, in a prepared statement, that no cases of E. coli have been traced to undercooked, processed meat patties. Even so, the group is still considering the USDA proposal and maintains that consumer safety is a top priority among its membership.

USDA has consistently advised the public to avoid rare and undercooked meat and poultry, Drayne said, even though this particular proposal does not apply to fresh ground beef sold raw in supermarket meat counters, nor to most hamburgers sold in restaurants.