Many US meat/poultry companies are fed up with the battering their trade has been getting from a three-year surge in food-safety recalls. The odds of being hit with a recall have been rising, spurred largely by the industry and government's new and improved pathogen-detection systems, larger test samples, and the persistence of the mutating microbial pests themselves. To boot, the government's new prevention-focused inspection service is lumping more chores, responsibilities and liabilities on the companies and their employees.

Plus, just three consecutive positive tests for hazardous food-borne pathogens can result in the USDA withdrawing its inspection and grading services from a plant, and that can lead to a shutdown.

So, what's a meat processor going to do?

Well, it turns out, there are many available options, from low-level irradiation on hamburger patties to steam-vacuuming carcasses, and more coming. Ground beef offers some of the biggest potential rewards by its very nature, being ground up parts of the cow, bull or calf. It draws a higher chance of being contaminated than other beef items. Even properly refrigerated, deterioration sets in within three days, and poultry is also a higher-risk product.

For companies like Laura's Lean Beef, it means taking steps to slash how many times its ground beef is touched by human hands, says Winona Rose, consumer-affairs v.p. at the Lexington, Ky.-based company with annual sales in the $55-million ballpark.

"We're going to case-ready. All our ground beef products, in first quarter next year, will be untouched by human hands from the plant to the consumer's table. We're rolling it out in phases," Rose said. Its ground beef products have been reground and repackaged at the retail store level by store employees. Soon all grinding and final packaging for Laura's Lean will be done at the processing plant.

"Case-ready is going to come (virtually industrywide). It's just a matter of time," Rose predicts. If so, today's common tradewide in-store grinding of fresh beef will become a rarity.

New peelable, transparent, two-layer packaging makes this approach attractive even from a marketing point of view, Rose said. Inside the sealed package the proper atmospheric mix retains meat freshness and shelf life. At the store, the first thin layer is peeled away, allowing enough air to filter in to cause the meat to "bloom" into its bright red color within 30 minutes while in the store cooler. That's the color consumers demand for perceived freshness, she said. "It looks just like store-ground beef," said Rose.

Laura's Lean, now with products being sold at fresh meat counters in more than 3,000 grocery stores in more than 30 states, was already moving toward case-ready long before a voluntary recall pulled a small portion of its ground beef early this fall, Rose said.

Kroger, for example, recalled only 8 pounds of the Laura's brand. That doesn't begin to rival the several thousands of pounds of meat that slaughterhouse-giant IBP Inc. has withdrawn in multiple recalls or dozens of other sizable meat/poultry recalls this year. Still a few others have been larger, such as the 1.1 million pounds of ground beef recalled early this month from 21 states by Green Bay Dressed Beef and its American Foods Group arm, due to a threat of E. coli O157:H7 contamination.

But, says Rose, any recall is too much recall. Laura's Lean chairman John Tobe said the case-ready strategy is one of several intervention steps already taken or being taken by Laura's Lean, its contract processors and contract cattle producers to prevent consumer hazards and future recalls - such as:

- After basic plant and machinery sanitation measures, the evolving processing tools - depending on whether a carcass, large cuts or ground meat are being processed - include hand-vacuuming, steam vacuuming, steam pasteurization, and antibacterial washes and rinses.

- Dedicated production lines for each meat batch, line sanitizing between batches, and segregated environmental controls for the kill rooms and processing rooms are aimed at preventing cross-contamination between production runs, products and processing operations.

IBP is Laura's Lean's contractor for this kind of state-of-the-art production, Rose said.

Laura's Lean, Tobe said, has from its 1985 startup insisted on cleaner cattle ranch/farm facilities, water, feeding pens and truck trailers. Cleaner cattle, carcasses, carcass halves and quarters, and cleaner large cuts yield cleaner end products, and cleaner cuts to grind, Tobe said. But all that still doesn't stop Laura's and its processors and the USDA from pulling random samples for microbial tests. "We go to great lengths to test our product," Rose said.

But Laura's Lean won't be going to irradiation to sanitize any of its steaks, roasts, ground beef or other beef items because, she said, "because it goes against the mission of our company."

Company founder, president and chief executive Laura Freeman started the business with the vow to produce only leaner beef from cattle raised only on natural grains and grasses on only family farms and ranches, without use of antibiotics and added growth hormones.

Rose said Freeman views irradiation as an unnatural, "chemical thing." But an increasing number of other meat/poultry processors want to slice the pathogen and recall risks even thinner and are adopting low-level irradiation, including electronic pasteurization. IBP is one of them for part of its beef production needs. Some of the electon-beaming systems claim to eliminate E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Campylobacter and Salmonella without damaging food texture or taste.

Minnesota-based Huisken Meats says the recent meat-safety scares are boosting sales of its electronically irradiated, pasteurized hamburger to grocers.

Still other food companies adopting irradiation technologies include Cargill Inc., Emmpak Foods, United Food Group, Tyson Foods, Del Monte Foods, American Foodservice and Hawaii Pride.

"But nothing is 100-percent effective," said Tobe, adding that sampling to detect the microbes is "like searching for a needle in a haystack."

By Worth Wren Jr., StoreAlliance.com staff writer

This is the final story in a three-part series. To view part one, click here. To view the second part, click here.