Questioning Effectiveness of Meat and Poultry Handling Labels

Industry Insights

Only weeks after the Clinton administration and new Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy took office in 1993, the USDA initiated a public education program in response to the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that hit the Pacific Northwest. The USDA wanted to ensure that the public understood not only how to handle raw meat and poultry products safely, but also how to properly cook it. Families at home, as well as cooks at restaurants, needed to be brought up to date with more accurate cooking temperatures.

Washington state law, at the time of the outbreak, required restaurants and institutions to cook hamburger patties to an internal temperature of 155 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas the federal standard was only 140 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a 1995 article in the Spokesman Review (Spokane, Wash.) newspaper, Bert Bartleson, technical expert for the state health department’s food program investigating the outbreak stated that “had Jack in the Box followed state regulations, which mandated that hamburgers be cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees, the [1993] epidemic would have been prevented.” He also pointed out that “State law [of 155 degrees] superseded a federal guideline at the time of 140 degrees…Either [Jack in the Box] didn’t believe in science, or they didn’t read the literature. If they followed the standards…no one would have gotten sick.” The FDA and USDA have since revised federal requirements, increasing cooking temperatures for raw meat to 155 degrees.

Many have called the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak the “9/11 of the meat industry.” This multistate event went far beyond just some people getting sick. According to the CDC, the state health departments of Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and California received reports of over 600 cases. Approximately 150 people were hospitalized, and of those 37 developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, and of those four young children died, including my 17-month-old son, Riley.

The day I buried Riley, I stood there with so many questions and such a rage inside. Only months prior, I was operating a nuclear reactor on a Navy submarine—I had never heard of E. coli. How did this happen to my son, to my family, to the American consumer? How could this be prevented from ever happening again?

Espy proclaimed that, in the absence of a way to detect or prevent the presence of the bacteria, the USDA must do “everything [it] can do to help inform consumers about proper preparation and storage of not-ready-to-eat meat and poultry.” In the wake of the outbreak, the USDA’s new Pathogen Reduction Program included a consumer awareness portion described as a “bold action” to educate the general public. The program included the mandated use of Food Safe Handling Labels affixed to packages of raw meat and poultry. For the last two decades, this has been the most visible device the USDA has employed to educate consumers about food safety as the USDA requires these instructions to be displayed on all packages of raw (or not-ready-to-eat) meat and poultry sold in the U.S. Unfortunately, I believe that the information on these labels was incomplete from the start.

In a 1993 discussion with Espy, I specifically asked why the cooking information was vague. He responded that because meat and poultry have different cooking temperatures, having those different temperatures listed may lead to confusion on the part of the consumer. He also stated that if there were different labels to be applied to different kinds of meat, mislabeling could occur at the plant or at the grocery store.

I left that meeting with a want to learn more about the kinds of cooking messages that they had previously used. Through some USDA contacts in D.C., I was able to find a 1990 Food Safety Inspection Service fact bulletin in which the USDA simply stated:

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