Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., will require its beef suppliers use stricter tests for E. coli and other sickness-causing bacteria after U.S. meat recalls rose in recent years.

Beef suppliers must “significantly reduce potential contamination levels” and meet Wal-Mart’s new standards by June 2012, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company said in a statement today. The new standards also apply to suppliers for Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club stores.

Wal-Mart’s heightened standards will provide an “additional layer” of protection for consumers beyond E. coli tests the meat industry already does, said Frank Yianna, Wal-Mart’s vice president for food safety.

“If you look at food recalls over the past two years, there’s been a significant increase,” Yianna said in a phone interview. “This is really a response to long-term trends in beef recalls.”

As the top U.S. food retailer, Wal-Mart’s new requirements are sure to affect many of the country’s biggest beef processors. Wal-Mart has “dozens” of beef suppliers, Yianna said, though he declined to name any.

Wal-Mart’s beef suppliers will be required to validate that the measures they’ve implemented are effective through specialized testing, today’s statement said.

Suppliers that don’t operate slaughterhouses must be in compliance with the new standards by June 2011, Wal-Mart said. Those that operate slaughterhouses have until June 2012.

If suppliers don’t meet the new standards, “we will stop doing business with them,” Yiannas said. “It is our intent that this is a firm deadline.”

Tyson Foods, Inc., the biggest U.S. beef processor, “applauds” Wal-Mart’s safety initiative, which “appears to be in line with measures we already have in place,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said today.

Safety measures already in place at Tyson, based in Springdale, Ark., include multiple steam vacuums, carcass washes, sanitizing rinses, thermal treatments and “extensive” microbial tests, Mickelson said. Thousands of carcasses and beef samples are tested daily, Mickelson said.

Yiannas said Wal-Mart will provide “quantitative targets” for its beef suppliers, including a “5 log,” or logarithmic, reduction in bacterial levels by June 2012.

Such a standard would result in a “99.999 percent” reduction in microorganisms present in a beef carcass, Yiannas said. The goal, Yiannas said, is to reduce bacteria to “undetectable levels.”

Wal-Mart discussed the new standards with its beef suppliers in recent months, and will “work closely” with them “to ensure that the new requirement is implemented without additional cost to customers,” the company said.
E. coli bacteria, which inhabit the digestive systems of cattle, can contaminate beef during processing and lead to diarrhea and other illnesses in humans.

One strain of the bacteria, known as O157, infects about 70,000 people a year in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. E. coli outbreaks have also led to deaths.

Wal-Mart accounts for about one-fifth of U.S. retail food sales, analysts estimate. In the 12 months ended Jan. 31, Wal-Mart’s grocery sales, excluding Sam’s Club, generated about $131.7 billion, according to recent government filings.

Wal-Mart operates about 4,300 U.S. stores, including 596 Sam’s Club outlets.

Source: Bruce Blythe, Business Editor, Vance Marketing