SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- An ongoing state investigation into meat-handling practices at several supermarkets in California has prompted other grocers to reinforce proper practices in their meat departments.
Don Beaver, president of the California Grocers Association, said the current probe into alleged adulteration of ground beef at Lucky Stores, Dublin, Calif., and an earlier investigation into the meat departments at Oakland-based Safeway's Pak 'N Save division, have raised awareness among other state retailers.
"Certainly those kinds of things, when they happen, are of a concern to the whole industry," said Beaver. "Because when a store or a company has a problem, it is really an industry problem because all consumers are reading about it and start to wonder, 'What is going on?' "
Last August Pak 'N Save agreed to pay $6 million in penalties and restitution to the state after it was found five of its stores had sold product labeled "30 percent-fat ground beef" that contained other meat trimmings.
The investigation by the State Attorney General's office, in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture and at least two county district attorneys, was broadened to include Lucky Stores and possibly others. The search reportedly is focusing on the mislabeling of ground beef. In a press release issued by Lucky, the company said it has been cooperating fully with the officials conducting the investigation.
"While the investigation is in a preliminary stage, we know that it is not currently focused on any health concerns regarding products sold by Lucky," said Roger D. Wilhelm, executive vice president and general manager of the Northern California division of Lucky Stores.
"It is our policy to comply fully with all aspects of the law regarding the labeling of meat. We are providing our full assistance and cooperation to the investigators."
To assist retailers in the state in maintaining strict standards, the California Grocers Association, with help from other state organizations, is planning to hold educational programs focusing on issues affecting perishable foods.
"We have been in preliminary discussions with the California Seafood Council and the California Beef Council to do some joint industry educational sessions for retail grocers on the proper handling of these products," said Beaver. No dates have been set yet.
Prepared foods, meat and fish departments, said Beaver, "are all areas that we as an industry have to be very careful that we watch for cross contamination and that employees are properly handling those products and utensils.
"We know that these companies properly train their people, but getting people to always follow instructions can be a problem."
In a random survey of some California retailers by SN, all contacted were aware of the ongoing state investigation.
John Jones, director of meat and fish at Morgan's Holiday Markets, Cottonwood, Calif., said his company plans to avoid mislabeling problems by maintaining its current meat-handling program and by not pressuring its employees to produce a certain level of gross profit dollars.
"We are more concerned with quality than the price of our ground beef," said Jones. "We buy a specific type of ground beef that is lean and we don't live and die on the price of the items. I think that makes a difference."
Charles Bergh, group vice president of the perishables division for Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., said the company does all that it can to ensure its products are properly labeled.
"In terms of the accurate labeling and identifying of meat products, we have always [insisted] and continue to insist that stores follow our policies and procedures to correctly identify the products that they sell," said Bergh. "And we have been consistent in that."
Another California retailer, who asked not to be identified, also said his company has always had a strict program for handling its ground beef to prevent problems. And it has reinforced that with the news of the state investigation.