The beef industry has begun making changes in packing plants to remove bacteria during production, making steaks safer and roasts less risky. The "safety revolution" is partially in response to an E. coli outbreak in 1993 that sickened more than 500 hamburger eaters and killed three children.
"It really affected consumer confidence in the products," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, a consumerist watchdog group.
As Americans heard about the diseased meat, they reacted by turning their backs on beef and consumption dropped to 61.6 pounds per person, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Beef producers and the government responded.
USDA inspectors are now requiring slaughterhouses to test meat and poultry for contamination such as E. coli. Though there are no standards and regulations are only for monitoring bacteria levels, levels likely will be mandated within the next year. The largest plants are moving now to improve the safety and the quality of their product, Ms. DeWaal said.
To combat bacteria, there have been several different germ killers introduced on production lines, including a high-temperature water spray and vacuum, an organic acid spray and steam pasteurization.
The hot water-vacuum spray was introduced about a year ago and is now in use in most major packing plants. The organic acid spray includes sprinkling the beef with antibacterial agents such as vinegar or even orange juice.
But the most recent development -- and one believed to be most effective -- is steam pasteurization. Under the Kansas State University-developed treatment, trimmed carcasses are put into a chamber and a high-pressure steam is applied. Several big packing plants are buying the new equipment, despite its $1 million cost.
According to Dan Hale, extension meat specialist at Texas A&M: "At least a third of the industry has gone to this system."
Another possibility is irradiation, in which food is exposed to cobalt-60 or cesium-137. Although the food does not become radioactive, the public has been reluctant to irradiate beef.
The FDA authorized poultry irradiation back in 1990, and before that had already approved it on spices, grains, fruits and vegetables. Pork also can receive very low doses to fight trichinosis.
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