How Topps Hamburger Overproduced Themselves Out Of Business

The demand for frozen hamburger patties is overwhelming! Shoppers just can’t get enough of cheap frozen hamburgers.

This summer, Topps meats struggled to keep pace with orders from Walmart and other retailers and, in so doing, neglected food safety procedures. Now they’re out of business, but the larger problem isn’t. There were 16 beef-related e. coli recalls this year, says the NYT.

That is a sharp increase from 2005 and 2006, and the resurgence of the pathogen raises questions about whether the Agriculture Department has given the meat industry too much leeway to police itself.

“We’re beginning to feel that the 2002 guidelines have not been enacted to the maximum,” Dr. Richard A. Raymond, the Agriculture Department’s under secretary for food safety, said in an interview in Washington

Not only did Topps cut the required e. coli testing from once a month to three times a year, it mixed tested and untested meat (both foreign and domestic) in its grinders, according to federal investigators. (Foreign meat doesn’t legally require e. coli testing because e. coli isn’t often found in imported meat.)

Federal investigators found that three different lots of hamburger meat were tainted with E. coli. Moreover, they said, the company’s record keeping was so poor they could not rule out contamination of other lots.

Batches that had been tested by suppliers were mixed with those that were not, officials said. Untested boxes from the freezer were tossed in with the daily grind, as were untested scraps from the plant’s steak line.

To be safe, the regulators finally urged the company to recall a full year’s worth of production, or 21.7 million pounds. “They couldn’t say, ‘This started two months ago,’” said Kenneth E. Petersen, assistant administrator of field operations for the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Because they couldn’t prove it, we went back a whole year.”

Now, as the above photo from the NYT shows, retailers are trying to distance themselves from Topps.

Many Red Flags Preceded a Recall of Hamburger [NYT]
(Photo:Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

Comments

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  1. crashman2600 says:

    Go to your local butcher, you will be better off, it costs a little more but its better tasting and safer. Hemps Meats FTW!

  2. TechnoDestructo says:

    Make your own patties! You can get really creative in doing so, but the simplest thing to do is mixing in a little bit of mustard into the meat.

    The difference is STUNNING.

  3. liquisoft says:

    I’m always a bit saddened when companies go out of business. A lot of people see big companies as these faceless entities that sell things. The reality is that companies are just big groupings of people. A couple guys on top make a mistake, and the hundreds of employees at the bottom lose their jobs. A lot of these people had probably worked there for years and are now out of work.

  4. Shadowfire says:

    The frozen patties were just really good for parties and such… a big box with a ton of patties that you could just slap on the grill.

  5. faust1200 says:

    @liquisoft: I would be sadder about an innocent party eating and/or dying from poisonous meat than a group of people losing their jobs.

  6. guroth says:

    I guess if people learned to cook their meat thoroughly this would be less of a problem.

  7. the day Topps officially closed their doors they had a giant BBQ. I call that going balls out

  8. ErinYay says:

    I’m less disgusted that people can’t shape their own patties, and more disgusted that, at the nine million BBQs I attended this summer, I did not bite into a *single* Babe Ruth signed rookie card.

    Topps my ass.

  9. crnk says:

    @discounteggroll: Why did they go out with a BBQ? Couldn’t sell the recalled meat, so they gave it away instead?

  10. timmus says:

    I eat almost anything, but frozen hamburger patties from the supermarket are nasty. They’re always leathery and stringy. It’s interesting that even though fast food places use frozen patties, they never taste as bad as the consumer variety. Well, ONE time I distinctly remember being served one, and it was at Applebees. That was over a year ago and I have never been back.

  11. backbroken says:

    @HappyPuppy:
    And I thought I was the only one wondering when they stopped including a stick of stale bubblegum wit their frozen patties.

  12. ludwigk says:

    @crashman2600: At my local butcher, it doesn’t even cost more, and they do all the grinding on-site. The quality difference between them and the local megamart is huge, and they’re walking distance from my house. I don’t purchase ground beef from any other source.

    @timmus: Lots of fast food places do NOT use frozen patties, such as Wendy’s, In-N-Out. Since I live in california, where we’re picky about our foods, all the serious burger joints use Neiman Ranch beef, which is top of the line. Heck, even EA’s cafeteria had Neiman Ranch.

  13. Shadowfire says:

    @timmus: There’s one brand that I tried at a BJ’s sampling, and I don’t remember what it was, but it was a microwaved frozen hamburger, and it was freaking great. Once in a while you get that good one…

  14. Falconfire says:

    @crnk: no they themselves ate it all. See thats the funny thing about E coli, you prepare the meat right and guess what… its not bad for you anymore.

  15. Buran says:

    I don’t see why they didn’t raise prices to slow demand and/or pay for the increased testing that had to be done. Guess they didn’t have what it takes…

  16. darkclawsofchaos says:

    @crashman2600:
    That is great, only if you live near a rural area so the meat is definately fresh, if you live in a city or even in the suburbs like me, finding a butcher is dificult.

  17. MrEvil says:

    @Buran: Well considering there’s lots of competition from Cargill and Tyson I can see why they didn’t raise prices.

    However, the moral of the story is, even with frozen patties is to ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS cook ground meat until well done. The only reason you can get away with a rare steak is because if the steak does come into contact with e.coli it is only on the OUTSIDE of the meat and thus is easily seared away when it makes contact with the hot grill. With ground the e.coli is mixed thouroughly throughout the patty and the only way to be sure you killed it all is to cook it all the way through.

  18. saltmine says:

    @Falconfire: If by “prepare the meat right” you mean “charring it to shit,” then I agree with you.

    This whole “they should’ve prepared the meat right” argument is crap – TECHNICALLY any quality red meat should be totally safe to eat medium, medium rare, even totally raw.

    Every heard of steak tartare anyone? It’s no wonder why nobody can serve it anymore.

  19. Trai_Dep says:

    Foreign meat doesn’t legally require e. coli testing because e. coli isn’t often found in imported meat.

    Just ponder that sentence. Now some more. And more.

    Angry yet?

  20. formergr says:

    @trai_dep: Yup, that sentence jumped right out at me too. Depressing more than anger-inducing for me personally, but bad either way.

  21. gorckat says:

    Thirded on that sentence jumping out. That should be a headline in and off itself.

  22. protest says:

    @trai_dep:

    yeah what’s up with that? and (assuming it’s true) why is foreign meat less likely to be contaminated??

  23. ColdNorth says:

    Because it doesn’t come from China… yet.

  24. hi says:

    eat m0r3 chiken?

  25. Slothrob says:

    @protest: Foreign meat is almost always grass-fed. E.Coli is a byproduct of cows eating corn.

  26. rwakelan says:

    @Slothrob: ummm, no. E. coli is a fecal bacteria. Cows produce fecal waste whether they eat corn or grass. The difference I hope you were trying to point out is if they eat grass, they probably aren’t standing in their own waste all day, so less of it goes with them to the slaughter house to infect the meat…

  27. superbmtsub says:

    @Buran: Raise prices? Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club don’t take prices from suppliers. They MAKE their prices and the suppliers do as they’re told.

    @MrEvil: Wrong. Ecoli tainted meet was mixed with untainted meat. They were all ground up together meaning the shit is on the inside the meat (and not jus outside), literally.

  28. lordmaxwel says:

    (having been on a kill floor in a slaughter house)E Coli results when the person is making the cut up with cow’s midsection and slices through the intestines releasing the fecal matter onto the meat. Ground beef is usually the culprit for E Coli since it is the meat that lies closest to the gut and does not make the tastest cut of steak.

    FYI – you want a good damn steak – you want a corn fed or grain silage fed cow. It provides more fat to the animal, which gives you more marbling which gives you MMM MMM yumminess.

    I can’t answer about Int’l meat – but my bet is they don’t try to process the amount of cows on a line as we do since there are not enough slaughterhouses in the US for the demand. Just a thought

  29. bigsss says:

    Looks like Wal Mart contributed to another company to go belly up because of their demands on orders and delivery of products.

  30. @trai_dep: I didn’t even have to get to “and more” to get upset.

  31. SugarRob says:

    @superbmtsub: Isn’t that what MrEvil is saying?

  32. hoosier45678 says:

    @rwakelan: My copy of the Omnivore’s Dilemma is not with me, but i think that the gist was that grass-fed cows have a less acidic stomach, and the e coli strains that live in their stomach are easily killed by our own stomach acids, but grain fed cattle have acidic stomachs with strains of low pH-adapted e coli, which are much more dangerous to humans (and are the reason that beef must be irradiated.)

  33. Hanke says:

    I swear, I read an article about this that since Topps was a packager, not a processor, they were not required to do any testing at all…

  34. rhombopteryx says:

    @rwakelan:

    UMMMM, NO to you. E.coli IS a fecal bacteria like you say, but it IS ALSO, like Slothrob says, mostly a ‘byproduct’ of cows eating grains like corn or wheat. E.coli levels drop by orders of magnitude (10x, 100x, 1000x) when cattle are allowed to graze and consume natural grass diets vs. being fed solely grains in confined feedlots with lots of opportunities for “recontamination” (a euphemism for eating their own waste.) The lower levels are mostly due to the different chemical environments in the cows’ stomachs – eating grain creates a comparitively more acidic environment than hay. There’s some relevant and interesting disagreement over which types of E. coli are most impacted, but the data shows a major overall E. coli reduction when cows are allowed to eat grass.

  35. kellyd says:

    Molly Ivins warned of all this in Bushwhacked–from the toys to the tainted meat. The book reads like a prophecy–that asshole from Texas gutted all the regulatory agencies to speed production, and this is what we got. May she rest in peace.

    Meanwhile, remember about cooking hamburger: if it’s gray, it’s okay.