Sales of hamburger meat during the important summer grilling season have not taken a hit, despite a number of widely reported regional outbreaks of food poisoning linked to the potentially fatal bacteria E. coli 0157:H7.
So said retailers and wholesalers contacted by SN this month as the final big cookout holiday of the season, Labor Day, approached.
It was E. coli, of course, that was blamed for the deaths of four children and more than 400 cases of food poisoning in the Pacific Northwest early last year. The incidents were traced to contaminated hamburgers purchased at units of a fast-food chain that allegedly were not cooked to the proper internal temperature.
And even the more recent, nonfatal outbreaks of foodborne illness
linked to E. coli in hamburgers in North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan and New Jersey have not taken their toll on ground beef sales.
"It just isn't hitting close enough to home," said Mirl Hull, director of meat operations at Harp's Food Stores, Springdale, Ark.
"It wasn't in their back yard, so the concern level was much lower," echoed Al Kober, meat and seafood buyer-merchandiser at Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa.
The fact that the outbreaks have affected an "extremely small" percentage of the country's ground meat eaters also may explain the lack of impact, he added.
Still, although sales haven't been affected, some retailers said consumers appear to be getting the message that the bacteria can be eliminated with thorough cooking. Indeed, consumers interviewed by SN earlier this month said they are still buying ground beef, but they are taking extra care to cook it thoroughly. Some said they're shying away from ordering hamburgers in restaurants now because they don't have control over the degree of doneness of the burger. (See related story.)
Retailers said they're taking steps to educate consumers about the proper cooking and handling of ground beef and other raw meats. Many are distributing brochures at meat counters and in consumer education centers in their stores, and some are providing safety tips in their newspaper ads.
Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif., has added an educational note to its cash register receipts, which say: "Enjoy BBQ season and remember to cook ground beef thoroughly." Here's what some retailers had to say:
Mirl Hull director of meat operations
Harp's Food Stores Springdale, Ark.
I don't think our customers are too concerned about the E. coli bacteria. I certainly haven't seen any impact on ground meat sales, and I haven't heard anything approaching concern from our meat department managers.
I think most consumers view last year's outbreak in the Northwest -- and the more recent incidents -- as something that happens to someone else. It just isn't hitting close enough to home right now.
Nevertheless, about six months ago we started making a government-produced pamphlet available at our meat counters that offers safe-handling and preparation tips for meat and ground poultry.
Ken Murphy senior meat buyer Pittsburgh division
Supervalu New Stanton, Pa.
I haven't noticed any impact in ground meat sales because of concern over the E. coli bacteria, but I'm sure there's a certain amount of concern in the back of the consumer minds.
I think the new safe-handling labels on meat purchases will help allay a lot of consumer fears. The labels give consumers more confidence by providing them with safety information.
Mary Ellen Gowin VP, consumer and corporate affairs
Wakefern Food Corp. Edison, N.J.
We have a consumer information program which includes various brochures on food safety, and since summer is a peak grilling season, we've been offering brochures dealing with ground beef and ground poultry.
The brochures are available at our meat and courtesy counters, and are sometimes used as bag stuffers at our front-end registers.
They list a toll-free number for the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline, so consumers can call with additional questions.
Al Kober meat, seafood buyer-merchandiser
Clemens Markets Kulpsville, Pa.
I don't think the average consumer is paranoid about the E. coli bacteria, for a number of reasons.
First of all, when you look at the percentage of people who have actually been affected by the bacteria, it is extremely small, considering the number of people who eat hamburgers and other ground beef products.
In addition, most people tend to think that a tragedy such as the one that occurred last year in the Northwest won't happen to them..
We do offer a brochure on safe handling and preparation of ground meat and ground poultry that was developed by a number of industry groups. Consumers don't seem to be too interested in the brochures, however. They go pretty slowly.
They do, however, provide a great educational tool for our department employees, who we encourage to read the brochures so they can answer customer questions.
Phil Forshee division director of meat and deli
Fairway Foods Minneapolis
I'm sure consumers have some concern about the E. coli bacteria -- but it hasn't impacted our ground meat sales.
I think people think that the outbreaks like the ones that occurred last year in the Northwest happen to other people.
Still, I'm sure that consumers have changed their cooking methods because of educational information that's come out because of E. coli outbreaks, and I'm sure that some of that information has come from our own meat department employees.
David Lindow meat buyer
Affiliated Food Stores Little Rock, Ark.
We service a lot of small, independent supermarket companies that address customer concerns through face-to-face contact, rather than relying on costly brochures and advertising.
Although I'm unaware of any sizable consumer concerns about the E. coli bacteria, I'm sure there are questions being asked at the individual meat counters.
We try to help the store employees answer these questions by keeping them up to date on information we receive from government organizations, industry associations and the like.