Processing food is a risky business. Processing raw meat is even riskier. In addition to managing routine food safety risks such as foreign materials and undeclared allergens, meat processors wage a constant battle against harmful pathogens that can be introduced to these products during slaughter. The smart processors spend considerable time looking over one shoulder to ensure their suppliers follow the best dressing practices and use the latest interventions to keep dangerous pathogens at bay.

But, is focusing solely on harvest enough? Not by a long shot. Recent events demonstrate that meat processors need to start looking over both shoulders. Within the last few months, a number of meat companies announced the recall of hundreds of thousands of pounds of top sirloin steak products because they became contaminated with Salmonella. Interestingly, however, the problem didn’t originate from their beef suppliers. Rather, the Salmonella originated from au jus seasoning supplied by a seasoning supplier regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The contaminated seasoning was injected by the processor into a half million pounds of steaks prior to distribution to restaurants nationwide. It became a huge problem for the processor, and no one saw it coming.

While the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has become far more aggressive when it comes to controlling for harmful pathogens in FSIS-regulated products, FDA has been dropping the hammer on the rest of the food industry. The agency is aggressively sampling food facility environments and finished products, searching for evidence of widespread contamination. The more FDA tests, the more FDA will find and, as a result, these efforts have yielded a sharp increase in the numbers and types of recalls. So far this year, there have been nearly 200 recalls of FDA-regulated products. The au jus seasoning and meat processors were the latest victims.

In recent years, meat processors have done a phenomenal job of carefully selecting suppliers to increase product safety and decrease risk. While most of the attention has appropriately focused on the most obvious source of risk (unwanted pathogens in raw animal products), new and unanticipated risks have evolved.

What is the solution? Closely scrutinize all of your FDA-regulated ingredient suppliers. Make sure you work with suppliers that have sophisticated food safety systems and appropriate controls in place. And, in case you don’t already, start demanding your suppliers test their ingredients for harmful pathogens before shipping them to you.

Recent events have taught us contamination is far more prevalent and persistent than we once thought. If you don’t start looking over both shoulders now, you’ll soon wish you were.  NP