By Joshua Lipsky, Senior Editor
USDA used the December 2003 BSE discovery to reform how it tests for the disease, classifies risk material, and stuns cattle.
While USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) time has been monopolized by the BSE outbreak in Washington state, the agency wisely used this opportunity to issue new regulations to further enhance safeguards against the disease.
Fortunately for the industry, the outbreak was impacted to a single herd, and by February 9, 2004, Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator of Veterinary Services for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said that the field investigation had been completed.
Animals of Interest
USDA's epidemiological search for additional animals from the source herd totaled 189 investigations, leading to complete herd inventories on 51 premises in three states: Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The inventories involved the identification on more than 75,000 animals, and as a result, 255 "Animals of Interest" were identified at 10 different locations. These "Animals of Interest" are animals that were — or could have been — from the source herd in Calmar, Alberta, CanadA. Included in the 255 animals of interest, 28 were positively identified back to the group of 80 cattle that entered the United States with the index cow, as well as seven heifers out of a group of 17 heifers that were also known to be from the source herd.
USDA acted swiftly to identify and contain the herd; however, it also used this outbreak as a springboard to radically reform its position on downer animals and issue new regulations to further protect U.S. herds against BSE.
Strengthening the firewall
In addition to banning all downer animals for the human food supply, in January 2004 FSIS announced the following new rules designed to further protect U.S. herds against BSE:
•Product holding: FSIS inspectors no longer mark cattle tested for BSE as "inspected and passed" until confirmation is received that the cattle have, in fact, tested negative for BSE.
•Specified Risk Material (SRM): Skull, brain, trigeminal ganglia, eyes, vertebral column, spinal cord, and dorsal root ganglia of cattle 30 months of age or older and the small intestine of all cattle are specified risk materials, thus prohibiting their use in the human food supply.
FSIS is requiring federally inspected cattle slaughter establishments to remove, segregate, and dispose of these specified risk materials so that they cannot possibly enter the food chain. To facilitate the enforcement of this rule, FSIS developed procedures for verifying the approximate age of cattle slaughtered in official establishments. State inspected plants must have equivalent procedures in place to prevent SRMs from entering the food supply.
•Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR): FSIS previously prohibited spinal cord inclusion in products labeled as "meat." The new rule expanded to also forbid dorsal root ganglia and clusters of nerve cells connected to the spinal cord along the vertebral column. In addition, because the vertebral column and skull in cattle 30 months and older will be considered inedible, they cannot be used for AMR.
•Air-injection stunning: This kill step method is banned to ensure that portions of the animal's brain will not dislocate into the tissues of the carcass during stunning.
USDA also is increasing its BSE testing program and establishing a target of between 300,000 to 400,000 tests per year.
"The recent measures that the agency [FSIS] has taken to further prevent BSE demonstrate how committed the Bush Administration and the Department of Agriculture are to protecting public health and improving our food-safety system through sound, science-based measures," Under Secretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano told attendees at the National Meat Association's (NMA) Annual Conference in February.
In his budget for 2005, President Bush has requested a $61 million increase from FSIS' 2004 budget, she reported. "Included in this is three million dollars for the agency to conduct monitoring and surveillance or regulations for specified risk materials and advanced meat recovery."
New Technology Office
Prior to the December BSE outbreak, the primary food-safety news of the past 12 months centered on the establishment of the New Technology Office (NTO) within FSIS to streamline implementation of new plant technologies and reduce FSIS' review timeline.
NTO incorporates the functions of FSIS' Technology Program Development Staff, manages the review process for "experimental protocols" for industry studies, and handles assessments related to new uses of approved substances and labeling considerations for these technologies.
"The combination of science and new technologies offers endless possibilities for success in our fight against foodborne illness," says Murano. "The New Technology Office will place greater emphasis on encouraging the use of new technologies that can help reduce pathogens on meat and poultry products.
"New technologies have resulted in significant improvements in the safety of meat and poultry in recent years," she adds. "Steam vacuums, steam antimicrobials are all examples of advances in food- pasteurization, and safety technology that have occurred."
While BSE was front and center for the industry and the government, Murano used the February NMA Annual Conference as an occasion to applaud the industry's support of test-and-hold practices.
"One reason for the decrease in recalls is because of the test-and-hold practice many of your companies have adopted," Murano says. "While it may require an additional step in your processes, I believe we can reduce these numbers even further, and keep consumer confidence high, if every company would hold FSIS-tested product until the laboratory results are in. This is smart public health and smart business."
E. coli O157:H7
During the past 12 months, FSIS personnel conducted the first-ever-comprehensive audits of 1,550 beef establishments' Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans. FSIS data pinpoints major improvements at 62 percent of those plants based on these reassessments. Meanwhile, 60 percent added E coli O157:H7 as a pathogen likely to occur. As a result, FSIS saw a significant drop in the number of positive samples in ground beef.
In 2003, of the E. coli O157:H7 samples collected and analyzed, 0.31 percent tested positive, compared to 0.78 percent in 2002 or a 60 percent reduction, Murano reports. "This is a definite improvement — and the strongest signal that science can drive down the threat from pathogens."
FSIS issued new procedures for detecting salmonellA. Prior, it took three positive salmonella samples to trigger a review of an establishment's HACCP plan. Now, it only takes two.
Due to this process and other science-based initiatives, the rate of salmonella in raw meat and poultry has dropped by 66 percent over the past six years and by 16 percent compared with 2002, Murano says.
Q. What is your company's greatest food traceability success story?
A. We feel that each of our 800 data customers has a unique story to tell, but the Ranchers Renaissance story certainly has been a rewarding experience. Ranchers Renaissance has been an eMerge customer since 1999, utilizing our CattleLog data collection and reporting tools to increase visibility throughout their supply chain and provide a branded product through several retail chains. Data is collected from ranch through the feedyard and into the packer, assimilated, and used to document various specifications on their retail product. Since 1999, they have grown tremendously, both in their membership base and product volume, and participating in that growth has been a highlight for us.
Q. Describe the latest traceability-related innovations from eMerge and their chief attributes and benefits for meat processors.
A. In mid-December our CattleLog suite was certified as a USDA Process Verified Program for animal data collection and reporting. CattleLog was the first data service to receive this designation. Our alliance and packing customers are looking for information solutions, like CattleLog, that can be implemented with confidence, both into the operation of their existing programs and upstream to their suppliers where quality data becomes critical. If meat processors are going to be accountable for information they or their suppliers collect, gaining third-party certification for quality of our information products was a logical and necessary step.
Q. What types of traceability solutions are meat processors most inquiring about?
A. Concern with live animal portions of the meat supply chain is at an all-time high. Processors want to know more about where their raw materials came from, how old they are, how they were handled or processed, and be able to view relevant information from all portions of their supply chain. Most processors do not have experience with live animal production and are looking to proven, experienced information providers like eMerge for these solutions.
Q. What are the greatest traceability and food safety challenges facing meat processors today, and where do the most opportunities for improvement lay?
A. The biggest challenge will be retaining individual or group animal identification through the fabrication process. eMerge has tracked product from ranch of origin through to the meat counter, but performing this function on a full-time basis will be a challenge for some time to come. Additionally, processors will need to avoid implementing any of the new, incompatible technologies that will inevitably be proposed with the regulatory and marketing climate we are faced with today.
Q. What traceability and food safety issues have most impacted your business over the past year, and what can the industry expect from your company during the next 12-24 months?
A.Obviously, the BSE case in Washington state has created enormous interest in our products and services. We have been contacted by a number of processors and retailers to implement a multitude of animal information programs, each of which is designed to provide processors with the supply chain visibility they need to meet their internal or customer requirements. Numerous issues exist that are resulting in increased attention on animal information solutions, including mandatory identification, COOL, Homeland Security Initiatives, and, most recently, legislative action on animal identification.
While traceability is today's hot button, the use of production data generated in conjunction with traceability information is a long-term paradigm shift that will significantly impact the meat industry. At eMerge, we will continue to provide innovative tools and streamline data collection and reporting procedures as the live animal industry begins wide-scale adoption of animal identification. The methods may change, but the technology will advance and make the process much easier for everyone. We know that the need for proven, high-quality identification services is not going to go away and we intend to be the premier supplier for these services well into the future.