U.S. Orders Safety Labels for Raw Meat and Poultry : Health: Move by Agriculture Department stems from recent food poisoning outbreak in the West. Advocacy group had pushed for action.

<i> From Associated Press</i>

The government on Wednesday ordered that all raw or partially cooked meat and poultry sold in the United States after Oct. 15 be labeled with instructions for safe handling.

The Agriculture Department’s decision was motivated by a food poisoning outbreak in the West last January, traced to undercooked fast-food hamburgers tainted with E. coli bacteria. Three children died and 300 people became ill.

It also follows settlement of a lawsuit filed by an advocacy group seeking the labels.

The parents of a 17-month-old boy who died from an E. coli infection during that outbreak appeared at a news conference with Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy to emphasize the required label’s message. It reads:

“Some animal products may contain bacteria that could cause illness if the product is mishandled or cooked improperly. For your protection follow these safe handling instructions.


* “Keep refrigerated or frozen. Thaw in refrigerator or microwave.

* “Keep raw meats or poultry separate from other foods. Wash working surfaces (including cutting boards), utensils and hands after touching raw meat or poultry.

* “Cook thoroughly.

* “Refrigerate leftovers within two hours.”

Labels on meat distributed to institutions for cafeteria or restaurant customers will carry the same instructions. But they also will say that food must be kept hot at 140 degrees or higher and that immediately after service, leftovers must be refrigerated.

A coalition of consumers organized under the name Beyond Beef got the government to agree last May to require the labels as part of the settlement of a lawsuit.

The consumer group also wants the labels to state explicitly that “cooking thoroughly” means until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit and is no longer red or pink.

“Until we have rapid tests to detect the presence of unseen harmful bacteria or vaccines to prevent the occurrence of bacteria in food animals, we must do everything we can to help inform consumers about proper preparation and storage of not-ready-to-eat meat and poultry,” Espy said.

Espy took office in January, the same week of the outbreak traced to Jack in the Box fast-food outlets.


Vicki and Darin Detwiler, whose 17-month-old son, Riley, died from an E. coli infection, said they have been urging the federal government to do more to inform consumers nationwide about handling meat. Their son’s death in Seattle came after he was infected by another child who had eaten the tainted meat.

“We want people to know to wash their hands after going to the bathroom and to wash hands after handling raw meat,” Vicki Detwiler said.

The labels must be put on the meat by whomever packages it for sale, officials said.

The government has mandated the specific language to be used on the label, but said it can be incorporated into existing labels or on a sticker placed on sealed packages.