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.
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.
"It kind of woke us up more," he said. "It made us start looking for a new way."
Roth never went to college and barely finished high school. He learned by doing. After hanging around dairy plants, he developed a fast freezing machine and opened a refrigeration business. That, in turn, exposed him more to the meat business and led to his starting BPI.
Roth was not afraid to experiment, and because BPI is private, he had the freedom to do it without shareholders or Wall Street looking over his shoulder. About 10 years ago, he and his engineers began working with ammonium hydroxide, a food additive already approved by federal regulators for use in processing cheese, chocolate and soda. It also exists naturally in beef. By increasing the level of it in beef, Roth hoped to reduce its acidity and create less hospitable conditions for bacteria.
The challenge Roth and his engineers faced was calibrating the ammonia so that it killed the greatest number of bacteria without affecting the flavor or appearance of the meat. After several years of experimenting, they developed a method that the company still uses. Once the meat leaves the centrifuges, the lean beef passes through a tube the size of a pencil, where it is exposed for less than a second to a tiny amount of ammonia gas. When the gas hits the meat, it combines with water in the meat to form ammonium hydroxide and eliminates any acidity.
The next challenge was making the numbers work. The cost of ammonium hydroxide combined with the other safety measures -- the stainless steel walls, the custom-made pumps -- added up. The price of BPI's frozen lean trim can be as much as 25 percent more than that of the competition, which includes Minneapolis agribusiness giant Cargill.
The sanitation and food-safety measures, though, end up paying for themselves to a degree because the plants' operations are more efficient, allowing them to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since the Jack in the Box incident, major fast-food and grocery chains have been willing to pay a premium for safer meat. The sight of all that stainless steel and the smell of sanitized air helps seal the deal.
"There is no better sales tool than the plant," said John Hayes, a former beef, pork and poultry buyer for McDonald's who heads Processing Innovations, a consultancy in Geneva, Ill.
The plants have even won over some of the beef industry's harshest critics -- people such as Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Safety Institute for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), and Nancy Donley, the president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a group that represents victims of food-borne illness. They are self-described fans of Roth and strong backers of his technology-based approach to food safety. Unlike their negative reactions to irradiation and to the use of carbon monoxide to extend the shelf life of meat, they are supporters of Roth's ammonium hydroxide intervention.
Not all consumer advocates are as enthusiastic about Roth's initiatives. Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch has some concerns over plans by a BPI subsidiary, Freezing Machines Inc., to use carbon monoxide in its processing of steaks. His group, as well as STOP and CFA, has objected to the use of carbon monoxide during packaging to make meat retain its color because doing so can make the meat look fresher than it is. But Donley of STOP said she was not as concerned about BPI's plans because the company was using the carbon monoxide in a different way, as part of an anti-microbial treatment. BPI's request to use carbon monoxide is pending with the FDA.
Donley, Foreman and Golodner have also been forgiving of BPI's few blunders, such as its role in a 2002 recall. A logistical problem led to 13 boxes of lean trim that had tested positive for pathogens to be shipped to a customer instead of to a rendering plant. As soon as BPI officials discovered the boxes were gone, they called the customer, which commenced a recall. There were no illnesses associated with the product, although all of the meat was likely consumed. The company didn't get a single ounce back. Since then, positive boxes are segregated in a special warehouse.
BPI's most serious misstep came last August when contractors installing new refrigeration equipment in the Waterloo, Iowa, plant failed to close off a pipe and accidentally began pumping liquid ammonia indoors. An employee, Elizabeth Myers, 44, died as a result. State regulators in December fined BPI $1 million and the contractor $88,000 for the accident. They also cited the company for 34 safety violations, some of which BPI is contesting, said Richard Jochum, BPI corporate administrator. The death of Myers, who had been with BPI for seven years, weighs heavily on Roth. "We wish we could turn back time and keep the accident from happening," he said.
It's that type of human error that he hopes technology can contain, if not eliminate. Where he can, Roth has tried to engineer around the fact that people are fallible. That's why he prefers closed pipes, automated warehouses and even certain job titles. People who oversee BPI plants are called "plant coordinators" and not "plant managers" because he doesn't want them to make too many independent decisions. He and a small cadre of managers keep close watch over all of the company's operations and its 1,400 employees.
He is still trying to build a safer food system with turbines, pumps and centrifuges.
The latest efforts entail making pH-enhanced beef patties for the school lunch program and steaks injected with an ammonium hydroxide-treated brine. Also in the works is a type of lean meat that when blended with other meat reduces the bacteria levels of the entire batch. All of these products will eventually be produced in a new facility next to the plant in South Sioux City. Early estimates put the project's price tag at $400 million.
"Some of the stuff you do you have to believe in," Roth said, "because it doesn't pencil out."