Are you old enough to remember these TV commercials in the 80’s? “When E.F. Hutton Talks, People Listen.” They always took place in a crowded, noisy room. E.F. Hutton would lean forward to speak softly with someone and the room would immediately become quiet as everyone strained to hear what he was saying. In every industry there are certain heavyweights who fit into that same commercial description. No matter what the chatter might be, their words will be heard above the racket.
When it comes to food safety, the E. F. Hutton of the beef business is Dr. James Marsden of Kansas State University. One of the most well-known people in the beef industry, Marsden’s research has led to many of the major breakthroughs in meat safety and has earned him a reputation as one of the nation's foremost food safety experts.
He is the author of some 100 publications and presentations in food safety, public health, meat science, processed meat technology and microbiology. He is the senior science adviser for the North American Meat Association and is a member of the Institute of Food Technologists, the American Society for Microbiology, the American Meat Science Association, the American Society for Quality Control and the American Society of Animal Science.
His work takes him around the world where he’s often invited to speak at major industry functions or to consult with food processing companies. Tracking him down for this interview took a few e-mailed requests, half a dozen phone calls and finally a voice-to-voice connection via Skype when I finally found him in France.
Q. Jim, let’s start by going back to 1993 and the Jack in the Box recall. The beef industry was caught unaware of the devastating potential of E. coli. How far has it come in the past 20 years?
I was heavily involved with the American Meat Institute at the time. We were already looking at methodologies to fight E. coli O157-H7 at the time. Jack in the Box immediately changed everything for a number of reasons. Four children died, and a number of people were sickened by the outbreak. The enormity of it got tremendous national coverage. It was a wakeup call for the entire industry.
Shortly after the Jack in the Box outbreak, Michael Taylor made an announcement that astounded the industry: O157 would be considered an adulterant in raw ground beef. Up to that point pathogens were considered naturally occurring. It was a huge change in USDA policy and AMI took them to court to try to block that policy. They lost badly.