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Engineering a Safer Burger

A small, family-owned business uses pricey technology to produce safer meat, offering a lesson for the $74 billion U.S. beef industry that is struggling to keep dangerous pathogens off American plates.

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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. -- The key to a safer meat supply may be in a two-story white building next to a meat-packing plant just south of the Missouri River.

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The building houses a processing plant that produces frozen lean beef used in 75 percent of hamburger patties sold in the United States. It is also a fortress against potentially lethal bacteria.

Practically everything inside was designed to prevent microbes from settling in. The walls of the processing room consist of stainless-steel panels set in concrete to keep organisms from building up behind them. Every pipe, piece of equipment and sign is set off from the wall by several inches for the same reason. The air pressure is higher inside than out to keep airborne bacteria from wandering in. And the air itself is constantly sanitized with the help of two massive turbines. The noise they make is deafening. It's like being inside a giant dishwasher in the middle of the wash cycle.

These measures are costly and go beyond the strict guidelines that all food-processing plants must follow. Yet they have allowed a small, family-owned business to not only produce safer meat but also make money doing it. They also hold lessons for the $74 billion U.S. beef industry, which 15 years after three toddlers died from eating undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers is still struggling to keep dangerous pathogens off American plates.

The South Sioux City plant in Nebraska, and three others like it in Kansas, Texas and Iowa, is a testament to the sensibilities and eccentricities of Eldon Roth, a South Dakota businessman who cleaned dairy plants before he went into the meat business.

Unlike other would-be reformers of the modern American food system who advocate a return to simpler agricultural practices, Roth is a firm believer in industrial production methods. His answer to the problem of food-borne illness is technology -- usually of his own devising. He conceived of or customized almost all of the equipment in his company's plants. So single-minded is he in his pursuit of clean meat that when he comes up with a new idea, he throws out the old one to make way for a new design, even if it means ripping out millions of dollars worth of equipment.

"He's never finished," said consumer advocate Linda Golodner, who has visited Roth's plants. "There's always a new broom that's going to wash itself."

Roth, 65, started his company, Beef Products Inc., in 1981 after developing a way to use centrifuges to extract valuable lean beef from less valuable, fattier trimmings. The meat BPI produces is just one component in ground beef, usually no more than 25 percent of the final product. A single patty can contain meat from multiple processors, and even multiple countries, which makes for a public-health challenge.

Ground beef is especially susceptible to contamination with E. coli O157:H7, a harmful variant of a common bacteria that lives in the guts of cattle and other animals and ends up on carcasses during slaughter. Grinding distributes the bacteria further, and if the resulting meat is undercooked, people can get sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimate that E. coli causes 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths a year.

Roth knew all about how bacteria can get into food. When he was a teenager, a series of crop failures forced his family to migrate to California, where he went to work cleaning milk and ice cream factories.

He said he saw a lot of unsanitary conditions and "ungodly amounts of creepy crawly stuff." So when he built his first meat plant in Amarillo, Tex., he adopted features of dairy plants that he felt were more hygienic than those in beef plants. He put bricks in the floors that could withstand harsh cleaning agents and used pipes instead of conveyor belts. When he couldn't find what he wanted, he designed it himself.

Eventually, Roth discovered his process for separating meat from fat had the unintended effect of making the lean beef more alkaline and therefore less conducive to bacteria that are used to the acidic conditions of the intestinal tract. After the deaths from Jack in the Box burgers, Roth began searching for a more effective way to rid his meat of pathogens.


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