Barbara Young

When President Obama lambasted the practice of corporate junkets at taxpayer expense in comments he made Feb. 24, the National Meat Association (NMA) annual suppliers showcase, among other events and meetings, was in full swing at a Las Vegas resort and casino.

This force of meat-industry business operators came together for good reasons — their corner of the global commercial world is suffering from the woes brought on by the current worldwide recession among other market forces. A junket was the last thing on their minds, as their thoughts were filled with issues to be addressed by a range of experts.

“We’ve all put a lot of effort into our businesses and have come together to learn and strategize for the future,” confirmed Barry Carpenter, NMA’s chief executive officer and executive director.

In terms of strategies, several speakers questioned the status of the industry’s food-safety achievements, especially concerning outbreaks associated with the deadly E. coli O157:H7 pathogen.

Noting that the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) regulation has not changed since its full implementation in 1996, Kerri Harris, president and chief executive officer of the International HACCP Alliance, questioned why production contamination continues to be a critical problem.

“If the regulation has not changed, what else has?” she asked. “Why are we discussing the same issues 13 years later?”

Answering her own question, Harris placed the blame on what she called a “them-and-us” attitude. “It is time that [all parties] in the regulatory arena, consumers and processors have an open dialogue in reality,” Harris proposed. “The product is not risk-free. We will have another O157:H7 [outbreak] and we all lose when that happens.”

A systematic approach to food safety that addresses physical, chemical and biological hazards as a means of prevention rather than finished product inspection, HACCP is considered a valuable food-industry weapon.

For years that weapon among other initiatives undertaken at meat processing plants — especially ground beef manufacturers — enabled the industry to reverse a trend of illnesses and deaths from the consumption of under-cooked burgers that peaked with the 1993 case involving Jack in the Box (JIB) in the Pacific Northwest.

Bill Marler, another speaker at the NMA “Bullet Session” featuring a cast of nine representatives from various business segments, praised past industry strides in controlling ground beef contaminations while also delivering a threat in the face of a new surge of incidents.

“Beginning in 2003, the incidence of E. coli infections decreased and I got no business from the meat industry,” Marler said, referring to lawsuits he handled on behalf of clients involved in food-contamination cases. A personal injury lawyer, national expert in foodborne illness litigation and a frequent critic of the meat industry over the years, Marler also advocates better regulations governing food manufacture.

“I am seriously back in the beef industry; it’s wrong and you need to fix it,” he told the group.

Dave Theno, the food-safety expert who shepherded JIB from the dark days it encountered brought on by the devastating foodborne outbreak in 1993, echoed these sentiments.

“This industry is full of reasons as to why it can’t change,” noted Theno, adding that such was really upsetting to him. “You have your destiny in your own hands. Food safety will be a driving factor. I hope there won’t be another big one [food poisoning], but it could happen. Look at the peanut industry, which did the testing. But somebody made a bad decision.”

Epilogue: Junkets are not likely to be included in the business practices of the meat industry with its low margins and a full plate of operating challenges that have recently increased and expanded. However, it continues to be in the best interests of the industry in the aggregate to coalesce to discuss those challenges and work on solutions.