At press time, officials, retailers and consumers were scanning their ground beef supplies, on the lookout for 5.3 million lbs. potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. It was the latest in a recall of product from Omaha-based Nebraska Beef Ltd.

Consumers could add that to this spring's 134-million-lb. recall from the Hallmark fiasco in Chino, CA. Or the other little recalls without the scale sufficient to capture national attention that have permeated our industry this year.

Year 2007 was bad enough — more than 20 recalls tallied to more than 30 million lbs. of beef products. The largest was the Topps incident (22 million lbs.), but the list included plenty of other well-known names — American Food Group with 95,000 lbs.; Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., 845,000 lbs.; United Food Group, 5.7 million lbs.; PM Beef Holdings, 17,500 lbs. See the list at: www.fsis.usda.gov/fsis_recalls/Recall_Case_Archive_2007/index.asp.

The Food Marketing Institute's “U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2008” survey found that in 2007, 66% of shoppers — down from 82% the year before — were confident that the food they buy at the grocery store is safe. This figure fluctuates with what's in the news, of course, but the survey illuminates a growing uncertainty among consumers about food safety that, like nervous cattle, can blow into a stampede with just the right spark.

The survey also points out that 53% of consumers think food-safety problems are most likely to occur at food processing and manufacturing plants. That figure was 30% in 2005, and 45% in 2007.

Food-borne illness is an issue the U.S. beef industry has wrestled with for way too long, and with considerable damage to our reputation. While the industry continues to pile more — and increasingly elusive — research dollars into developing incremental remedies for the nightmare of E.coli O157:H7 contamination of ground beef, the silver bullet for the problem — irradiation — waits on the shelf.

And all the while, the industry admits they're unlikely to ever add up to the kill step that irradiation provides.

Cattlemen's organizations and processors all say they're behind irradiation — with policies of support on their books that they trot out when queried — but they continue to hide behind the skirt that consumers won't accept irradiation. A wealth of research, however, shows that — with education — 85% of consumers will embrace the technology. Still, the industry dithers over the other 15% — many of them likely non-meat eaters.

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable among us — our kids, aged and the sick — continue to be unnecessarily placed at risk. It's time the industry did the right thing and seriously pushed for ground-beef irradiation. And it's up to producers to do their share in pushing that message.

Back to Brazil

Tentatively set for Jan. 16-25, 2009, BEEF magazine is headed back to South America. Our eighth producer tour will concentrate on Brazil.

Cost of the trip is around $4,500, predicated on a 20-traveler minimum. The fee covers passage from Miami, FL, to Brazil and back, as well accommodations, in-country travel, translators, tour guides and most meals.

Serving as guides are myself and Clint Peck, director of Montana Beef Quality Assurance and an authority on world beef competitiveness. To reserve your spot, contact me at 952-851-4669 or jroybal@beef-mag.com; or Clint at 406-896-9068 or cpeck@montana.edu.