Part 3 of 4
Behind the scenes at a supermarket meat counter: A butcher takes out a large bag of meat and slices it open on a cutting block.
The pool of blood at the bottom of the bag spills across the counter and onto the floor.
Robert Foster is changing that.
He has invented a device called the “meat purge eliminator.” It fits squarely onto the top of trash barrels where blood, bacteria and bones from cuts of meat are discarded.
The purge eliminator works like a colander, with butchers cutting open bags of meat into them, instantly draining away undesirable materials, while retaining the meat.
Since inventing the product four years ago, Foster has sold 692 of the $169 items - $116,948 worth. All profits are churned back into production.
They’re in supermarkets across the country and in Mexico, Canada and in Korea. The military uses them in many commissaries. The first one was sold to the Tidyman’s in Post Falls four years ago.
That’s not enough for Foster, the former Tidyman’s meat director.
He wants to see one of his meat purge eliminators in every supermarket in the country. It’s not money that’s motivating him - he has another successful full-time business - it’s safety.
When blood spreads across the butcher block and drips onto the floor, employees slip and fall, sometimes with butcher knives in their hands. Bacteria spreads. Blood seeps into drains and coagulates in sewer lines.
“I didn’t make it because I was trying to get rich quick,” Foster said. “I made it because I wanted to help the industry.”
It’s an industry he’s devoted his life to.
Foster had been meat director at Tidyman’s for 13 years when he left in 1988.
Though he’s never invented another product and doesn’t intend to, he’s long been what he calls “a forward thinker.”
He introduced brand-name beef to Tidyman’s and implemented a central meat cutting and distribution facility for the supermarket chain.
After leaving Tidyman’s, he went to work for a meat industry supply company.
A friend working for a meat packing company in Canada said he needed to find a way to keep blood off butcher blocks.
Foster designed the purge eliminator in his head, then called Dick St. John, a patent attorney in Spokane who had worked with him on trademarking the name Tidyman’s years before.
“Dick said, ‘If you’ve got 40 bucks, come on down,’ ” Foster recalled. By the time he left the law firm, he’d paid the initial consultation fee and $800 to conduct a patent search.
The patent application process cost $6,000 and took two years. He finally was awarded two patents - one for the product’s design, the other for its’ use - in 1996.
The first purge eliminator was made of stainless steel. Foster took it to meat shops and no one wanted it.
Then he created a mold out of heavy duty plastic. He had five made and took them to a food show in Alabama.
“Everybody liked it, but I couldn’t sell them,” he said.
Meanwhile, his friend in Canada had become head of meat operations for a supermarket chain in Alaska.
“They put one of my purge eliminators in every store,” Foster said.
Orders continued to trickle in. A big chain in Massachusetts saw Foster’s brochure and ordered 45. Some military bases ordered the product. Eventually it was listed in the U.S. government’s General Services Administration catalogue.
“Being listed in the GSA catalog, any government agency can buy it automatically. I’m kind of proud of getting that done,” Foster said.
Still, Foster tells a story he says illustrates the main reason he thinks supermarkets don’t buy his product - extra safety measures aren’t taken unless required.
A supermarket in California that he’d unsuccessfully pitched his product to called him one day. Health department officials had visited the supermarket and ordered the meat department to keep the blood from cuts of meat off the floor.
That’s when the supermarket called Foster and ordered his purge eliminator.
Lots of supermarkets will adopt a similar attitude, Foster said, not changing until they’re required to.
But for health reasons, he said: “I believe my device, or something like it, will be a requirement in the stores one day.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo