The Iowa Legislature is on the brink of extending a waiver of food safety regulations that have allowed a handful of Maid-Rite franchisees to cook and store loose hamburger meat in the same cooking vessel at the same time.


Food safety experts say the practice risks both undercooking the meat and cross-contamination.


Don and Sandy Short, owners of Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, Iowa began lobbying the Iowa Legislature for relief after losing an appeal to an administrative law judge that ended the waiver Maid-Rite franchises received under the administration of former Gov. Tom Vilsack.


After Vilsack, now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, left office in 2007, a new director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals was named by incoming Gov. Chester J. Culver.


Dean A. Lerner, the new director, withdrew the waiver and promised the Shorts that if any restaurant owner is found “cooking and holding potentially hazardous food in the same unit at the same time, it will be marked as a critical violation and an alternative operation will be required within specified time limits.”


Lerner said the alternative “could be as simple as using a roaster or similar until to hold the cooked product for service at prescribed temperature.”


Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown received that specific critical violation at its next inspection, and filed an appeal that was not decided until Sept. 23, 2009.  The fasts were never in dispute.


Maid-Rite are low cost restaurants that serve a loose meat beef sandwich on a bun.  Originally the meat was both cooked and stored in the “Maid-Rite” cooker, but the corporation has been working to comply with food safety regulations on the issue since 2003.


Taylor’s and “very few” other franchisees still use the dual-purpose cooker, according to Bradley L. Burt, Maid-Rite president and chief executive officer.  Burt said the Shorts are ignoring corporate policy and food safety standards by continuing to pursue the waiver.


“Maid-Rite’s corporate policy and food safety standards require each new and existing franchise restaurant to separate the cooking and hot-holding processes,” Burt wrote in a letter to Iowa lawmakers.  “By separating the cooked product from the raw ground beef, our customers can be assured that their Maid-Rite sandwich is a wholesome and quality food safe product.”


Burt also said Maid Rite has a Roaster Oven for storing cooked product that would solve the problem the Shorts are having in getting a clean inspection for a cost of just $50.


“A $50 investment in food safety is not going to close small-town Maid-Rites, put Iowans out of work, or destroy our rural economy,” Burt added.


Burt purchased Maid-Rite in 2003, and immediately began asking franchises to discontinue the dual-purpose cooker and sought help in persuading them from the health departments in the several states Maid-Rite serves.


Iowa asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate the Maid-Rite cooker in 2004, and was told that simultaneous cooking and holding in the same vessel “could result in cross-contamination or undercooking of the meat product” in violation of food codes.


Steve Young, who was Department of Inspections and Appeals director under Vilsack, in 2006 issued a waiver for existing Maid-Rite franchises, which required the restaurants to discontinue use of the cooker only upon sale to a new owner.  Young said it would be “unfair” to “make a 180-degree shift“ in longstanding policy.


Burt asked Iowa to review the waiver when Lerner was named to replace Young.


John M. Priester, the administrative law judge, found Lerner’s decision to end the waiver policy was justified.  “The threat of contamination of food constitutes a good reason,” he ruled.


The Shorts, however, did not give up.   They showed up at the Iowa statehouse, telling lawmakers that the administrative law decision means Maid-Rites will be closing across the state.


S.T.O.P.-Safe Tables Our Priority, the national advocacy group for safe food, tried to get Iowa lawmakers to focus on the food safety issue raised by the “Maid-Rite” cooker, but the Senate acted before it could get much traction.


By voice vote, a state appropriations measure was amended in the Iowa Senate to read:


“The waiver policy of the department of inspections and appeals allowing some food establishment franchises to continue the use of certain cooking apparatus for ground meat until such food establishment franchises are sold, as outlined in the letter from the department’s director dated June 15, 2006, shall continue in force unless specifically eliminated by statute.”


The bill goes to the Iowa House later this week, meaning a hard-to-get-out amendment is in a must-pass bill.  


As for the practices of Iowa’s many independent restaurants that also feature loose meat or taverns, a public health expert in the state says: “All other loose meat sandwich shops are in compliance with the food code.”

  • From the Des Moines Register:
    Make sure Maid-Rites aren’t made wrong
    Maid-Rites are an Iowa tradition dating back to a butcher in Muscatine in 1926. The loose-meat sandwiches are tasty and filling. But they won’t strip you of your common sense or make you think you’re something you’re not – like a food safety expert.
    Unless you’re an Iowa lawmaker.
    When Iowa lawmakers eat a free Maid-Rite at the Capitol, something strange may happen. They say things like, “Maid-Rites are very important to me,” and support an amendment to exempt the sandwich from basic safety standards.
    That is what happened. Now it’s time for lawmakers to come to their senses and kill the amendment.
    This tale began when state regulators told Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown to alter its preparation process to ensure cooked hamburger did not mingle with raw meat. That can make customers sick.
    But Taylor’s didn’t want to change its ways. The restaurant handed out sandwiches to lawmakers and asked them to help preserve its “traditional cooker” method.
    State Sen. Steven Sodders bit. The State Center Democrat introduced an amendment to the bill that funds the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, the agency responsible for food safety. It enables Taylor’s to use the old cooking method and disregards widespread food safety recommendations about food preparation.
    It also disregards direct advice from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
    In a March 10 letter to the Iowa Legislature, the agency stated it was “very concerned” about undercooked meat contaminating cooked meat. E. coli “causes a very serious disease in which survivors (especially children) can suffer lifelong health consequences including loss of kidney functions, blindness and other health problems,” according to the letter.
    Those are the survivors. Some people die.
    Bradley Burt, CEO of Maid-Rite Corp., says the old way of cooking the meat is unsafe. A safer method of cooking requires “a very simple conversion process” that some restaurants have done for as little as $50. And it doesn’t change the taste of the sandwich, he said. In fact, Burt said if lawmakers were given a taste test – one sandwich cooked with the old method and one with the new – they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
    But Sodders and others are siding with “tradition.”
    They apparently think a practice is OK just because it’s been around for many years. But that’s a fallacy. It’s why people wear seat belts and doctors don’t “bleed” patients to cure diseases and employees aren’t smoking in the office now. When we realize there are safer ways of doing things to protect lives, we do them.
    When Iowa lawmakers cook at home, they can do whatever they want. They don’t have to wash their hands. They can lick the spatula or eat hamburger raw, if they so desire.
    But Iowa businesses serving customers need to implement basic practices to ensure food is safe. That should be this state’s “tradition.”

  • I wrote this several weeks ago when the Wyoming Legislature was doing something equally as stupid. Change the state to Iowa and the legislator to State Sen. Steven Sodders and you get my point:
    Wyoming Legislature set to pass House Bill 54 – The “Bill Marler Full Employment Act” – Thank you Sue Wallis.
    Thank you Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, Wyoming. Like the Seattle Times, how did you know that I did not have enough work suing Cargill, Nestle, Con Agra, McDonald’s, Peanut Corporation of America, Kellogg, Dole, Nebraska Beef, Whole Foods, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, etc., in food poisoning cases? How did you also know that I love spending time skiing and fly fishing in your state?
    Sue, thank you for sponsoring House Bill 54 (a.k.a., The Wyoming Food Freedom Act) – where can I send my check for your re-election?
    The Bill, if enacted, would exempt producers from licenses, inspections and certifications when selling directly to consumers.
    Sue, this Bill will be a big help for my struggling business and certainly allow me to spend more time in Wyoming suing those exempt producers, who, unlicensed, uninspected and uncertified are bound to poison their customers. I can also imagine that most of those producers are farmers and ranchers with little or no insurance to cover what can be millions in medical bills for poisoned children – I have always wanted a ranch in Wyoming – perhaps near a ski resort and trout stream? Sue, you are the best. Perhaps I can host a raw milk and hamburger fundraiser for you out at the new ranch?
    The Wyoming Tribune Eagle (a.k.a, “liberal media”) has been giving some coverage to the bill. Michelle Dynes just wrote, “Food bill moves on to full House.” As he penned:
    House Bill 54 would exempt producers from licenses, inspections and certifications when selling directly to consumers. The Wyoming Food Freedom Act also would encourage the expansion and availability of farmers’ markets, roadside stands and farm-based sales….
    Now that is a money move – Cha-ching!
    Those damn Op-ed folks at the same paper do not seem to have the same view of food safety as Sue. The editors posted, “Food bill is conservatism run amok” a few days ago. The editors do not seem to like Sue’s “assert[ion] that the bill ‘seeks to clarify the fundamental right of Wyoming citizens to eat whatever they want to eat.’” The editors assert that they:
    … can’t find anything in the Wyoming or U.S. constitutions that even talks about what people should be able to eat. If there is a “fundamental right” to eat whatever you want — and to peddle it — it is so only in the mind of ultra-conservatives who think any form of governmental action is interference in their lives. …
    Ms. Wallis would have you believe that the government has no right to meddle in interactions between buyers and sellers. But buyers, for the most part, believe the goods they are getting are safe — at least partly because they have been inspected by the government.
    Indeed, HB 54 takes the philosophy of “let the buyer beware” beyond the point of good sense: Who has the ability to test — prior to consumption — whether a food product is safe? …
    The editors then resort to the old “nanny state” argument:
    One of the key roles of government is to ensure the public welfare. Inspections of foodstuffs and licensing of sellers do just that. HB 54 is conservatism at its worst. It should be rejected.
    Sue, do not pay any attention to the “liberal media” in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Pass the bill and I’ll see ya out at the ranch.

  • A. Petyo

    Not being from the mid-west nor familiar with this cooking process, I don’t really have a clear picture of how this is done. Do they cook the beef in a large kettle/cooker and then move it (same cooker) to a steam table for hot holding or is it that they cook the beef in a kettle/cooker, keep it on the stove and continue to add raw beef to the mix as they are actively serving from the vessel?