We've heard all too much about it: The nation now has weathered an unprecedented food recall, that of 25 million pounds of ground beef. But how much is 25 million pounds anyway? According to SN's inquiry into this ponderous question, it's equal to the weight of 109 Space Shuttle orbiters, 5,495 Ford Explorers or 98,040 later-life Elvis Presleys.
Now that we have the important stuff figured out, let's take a look at what this recall of product from Hudson Foods' processing plant in Nebraska might mean to food retailers and others.
Here are a few thoughts:
IT'S SHORT: Consumers are bombarded night and day with news of one thing or the other that's bad for them. News about the ill effects of food and other substances simply doesn't register as it did several years ago. That means the drop in consumption of ground beef will be shallow and brief. News articles in this week's SN (Page 7), and last week's, tend to bear this out.
IT'S FROZEN: A little-noticed element of this saga is that Hudson fabricated beef in the form of 4-ounce, formed and frozen patties. Most of the plant's output ended up in food-service (Burger King restaurants) or quasi-retail venues (Sam's Club). Some small percentage went into conventional stores in Western states. Consumers should have little trouble differentiating between the Hudson product and the fresh product that is supermarkets' mainstay. Incidentally, maybe this fact will illustrate to alert consumers that fast-food restaurants generally use frozen, not fresh, meat.
IT'S CONSUMERS: Consumers have a role to play. Ground meat must be cooked to a temperature of about 160 degrees to ensure its safety. Personnel at any supermarket should be able to explain that fact. That said, it's too much to ask consumers to accept what amounts to contaminated product with the stipulation that it must be cooked to specification. Consumers have a right to demand and to receive product free of harmful pathogens. Regrettably, that's not likely to happen although improvements that will drive the price of product upward can be wrought. But, at some point, consumers will have to be enlightened about the sanitation solution irradiation can confer on many types of food, including ground meat.
IT'S SCARY: Notwithstanding all the foregoing, there is a lot of accountability associated with this scenario that goes well beyond the obvious moral and social obligation of anyone in food retailing to sell safe food. Hudson found the business-side danger immediately: It was obliged to shut down a relatively new $32 million plant because its biggest customer, Burger King, has no plans to resume buying Hudson beef product, no matter how production practices may be improved. IBP Inc. agreed to acquire the plant. More than that, Burger King took out full-page newspaper ads around the nation to assure its customers it had weeded Hudson product from its system, product that certainly would have been safe to use. Next will come lawsuits and further regulation.
The whole situation begs a question concerning the store-as-brand idea that's gaining currency in food retailing. Suppose the day arrives that shoppers are sickened by a store-label perishable product. Would the fate that befell the Hudson processing plant accrue to the supermarket? Probably so, if the event were large and publicity centered on the supermarket.
This all goes to show that moves to identify highly volatile product with the store name need to be thought through very carefully.