Jan. 05, 2005
By Harold Brubaker
Guy Giordano has no stomach for risking the future of the roast beef company that bears his father’s name.
That’s why Vincent Giordano Corp. spent $2 million on a packaging system to ensure that no listeria contaminates the more than 250,000 pounds of roast beef, corned beef and pastrami that the South Philadelphia company ships weekly to Acme, Wawa and other customers.
“I don’t think anybody else has safer product on the street right now,” Giordano said yesterday.
Several other area meat processors, including Dietz & Watson Inc. in Philadelphia and Snow Ball Foods L.L.C. in Gloucester County, have also spent millions in the last few years to improve food safety at their plants.
Many of the changes were spurred by a U.S. Department of Agriculture regulation issued in 2003 to prevent the contamination of pre-cooked meat and poultry by listeria monocytogenes, an often lethal strain of a common bacteria. Yesterday, though, the Consumer Federation of America said government and industry had not done enough, arguing in a 41-page report that the Bush administration weakened the proposed listeria regulation, which was published in the final days of the Clinton administration.
Industry interests have prevailed over consumer interests in terms of testing requirements, government oversight and labeling, said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the federation’s Food Policy Institute.
The federation cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report estimating that in 2003 – when the new rule went into effect – the national incidence of listeria food poisoning climbed from 0.27 to 0.33 per 100,000 people. The CDC, however, tracks illnesses by pathogen, not by food group.
The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service countered that the new rule has been a success, with the number of listeria recalls falling from 40 in 2002 to 15 last year.
The period after the proposed rule was published in 2001 was punctuated by large listeria-related recalls of turkey deli meats produced in Franconia Township, Montgomery County, and Camden. A criminal investigation of what happened in 2002 at the Wampler Foods plant in Franconia continues.
Giordano recalled one day’s production of meat last year after Georgia state inspectors found listeria monocytogenes in a sample at a supermarket in January. The company got back 800 of 60,000 pounds of goods, but no illnesses were reported, Giordano said.
The company’s new packaging system, which began operating in March, uses two steps – infrared ovens and hot-water pasteurization – to kill bacteria, and has “virtually eliminated any risk of listeria,” Giordano said.
David Howard, owner of Unitherm Food Systems, a Bristow, Okla., company that supplied the equipment, said Giordano was one of only two customers that had chosen both layers of protection.
Giordano – which employs 75 and which expected $55 million in sales last year – went the two-step route because it provides the best protection against listeria without harming the taste or texture of the meat, Guy Giordano said.
Snow Ball Foods, a chicken and turkey processor in Williamstown, started operating a hot-water pasteurization system in April, said Kevin Moffett, director of operations at the company, which employs 300.
Virtually all food producers also combat listeria by testing surfaces that contact meat as well as noncontact surfaces, such as vents and table legs. Listeria could even be in condensation dripping off a pipe.
Dietz & Watson, for example, conducts 35 surface tests every week at its plant on Tacony Street near the Frankford Armory, said Patrick H. McDonald, assistant manager of quality assurance.
As much as possible, Dietz & Watson tries to avoid measures that harm the quality or taste of the meat, such as using chemical additives that inhibit the growth of bacteria.
Food-safety efforts pay off in the marketplace, Giordano said. “I’m getting invited to look at business where I couldn’t get my foot in the front door before.”