Food safety has always been a top priority for beef processors. But in a market where recalls become front-page news more often and companies can go out of business because of them, it becomes ever more important.

The issue of food safety has become more serious over the past two years. According to a new survey by Deloitte Consulting LLP, 57 percent of Americans have changed their eating habits because of recalls that have hit the market. And despite the fact that they form a minority of products recalled, the survey, released in early June, finds that meat recalls are the largest concern for consumers. The survey found that 78 percent of consumers are most concerned by beef recalls with chicken recalls coming in second with 67 percent concerned.

“These findings underscore how urgent it is for food manufacturers to do all they can to address the problem of food recalls head-on,” says Pat Conroy, Deloitte LLP’s vice chairman and U.S.

consumer products practice leader. “Over half of consumers say they may drop your product if they believe you are not doing what it takes to protect them and their families.”

Randy Huffman, president of the Washington-based American Meat Institute Foundation, says thatE. coliO157:H7 has been the (AMI) No. 1 food pathogen for the past 15 years. It has been linked with food-borne illnesses more than any other pathogen. Salmonella, the other pathogen of concern in beef, simply isn’t as big a problem or hasn't gotten as much of the focus.

“It’s important to point out that beef is not the primary source,” he says. On a global scale, beef is the source of 20 to 25 percent of allE. coliinfections. Vegetables, including an outbreak in Japan in 2003, are a bigger source. In the Japanese case, thousands across the country were sickened because of contaminated radishes. But even that and other incidents don’t remove concern over recalls such as the major Topps ground beef recall in 2007.

Huffman says the most likely source of contamination in the modern processing environment is the hide of the livestock. Any steps to eliminate and reduce the risk of carcass contamination start with the hide.

From the beginning

That is exactly what the beef industry is working toward today. And beef safety starts, appropriately enough, at the beginning of the process: pre-harvest and slaughter.

Mandy Carr, Ph.D., executive director of Beef Safety Research at the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says that the true risk to food safety at this point in the process is very low. However, “we want to add hurdles in the process so it is more and more difficult for a product to be contaminated,” she says.

Carr spoke about these hurdles and many of the efforts and issues in pre-harvest hygiene in April. She was asked to present information Beef Safety Research had developed in combating pathogens and the most effective interventions, includingwashes, acid sprays, steam pasteurization, hide dehairing and others.

“One thing is that in all these interventions, we see those as additional steps,” Carr says. “They are never to replace others. We expect the same high level throughout the process.”

Animal health also enters into consideration as part of pre-harvest interventions. Carr says that compounds like sodium chlorate can be used. With a safety consideration similar to table salt, it interferes with a specific enzyme in bacteria. The versatile compound can be used as a water additive or on the top coat of feed, with water being the most effective. It is currently in the process of approval for use. Carr says that in several different trials there was a multiple log reduction in the load of E. coli found in the GI tract. Once approved, sodium chlorate can be used commercially.

Neomycin is another intervention that Carr says would be included under animal health. Long in use for fighting bacteria, it has been found to be affective in battling E. coli in cattle.

On the same page

Hygiene has long been considered a noncompetitive issue among producers, Carr says. That means that different companies will not use hygiene as a way to compete against each other. Since 1997, producers have shared information on the best practices and ways to improve hygiene through organizations the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCO). There is a formal meeting each year, but information is shared on a daily basis.

Arkansas City, Kan.-based Creekstone Farms works throughout its departments to control contamination. With in-house activity in every part of the process from slaughter to distribution, the company has worked to improve food safety for the end consumer.

“Slaughter procedures are extremely important to the elimination of E. coli, while procedures in fabrication and packaging impact the shelf life of the bagged subprimals and the finished product on retailer’s shelves,” says Jim Rogers, vice president of marketing for Creekstone. “Cold-chain management from the sales cooler all the way through shipping plays a vital role in ensuring that we provide our customers with a wholesome and safe product.”

Creekstone stands out in food safety because of its testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease. The disease has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of the illness.

The company has been fighting the federal government for the right to test for BSE. The government says that testing for the disease, an expensive process, creates an unfair advantage for Creekstone. However, the company says that the government doesn’t have the authority to deny the testing. A court decision earlier in 2008 agreed with Creekstone, but it remains appeal.

Rogers says that much of Creekstone’s sales are overseas, especially to Asian nations where concerns over BSE have been especially high. Many countries stopped importing U.S. beef after the 2003 discovery of the disease in Washington state. “We feel that it is within our right to test 100 percent of our cattle for BSE,” he continues. “We believe that as a privately held company, we should be able to exceed the government’s requirement for BSE testing and test 100 percent of our cattle.”

Recalling the past

Food recalls, especially ones because of bacteria contamination, have been getting more and more press in recent years. The Topps meat recall of 2007, which resulted in the bankruptcy and closure of the company, is still very prevalent in the minds of many producers.

Huffman of the AMI Foundation says that there was an increase in recalls because ofE. coliin 2007, going from seven or eight incidents in 2006 to 20 for 2007. In an unusual instance, 10 of the recalls were linked directly to illnesses.

The industry did react swiftly, he says. The industry and organizations have increased efforts to ensure the use of best practices. There has been a special outreach to small and midsized processors.

However, other recalls occur when there has been no illness but there is a positive test result. Huffman says that such a situation often occurs because the producer has not waited long enough.

Testing, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is always done, but a producer may send it out for distribution to save money on storage and maintain sales.

“That’s just bad practice, bad policy,” Huffman continues. “If a lot is tested for a pathogen, it should be held pending results.” To that end, AMI has asked the FSIS to assert its authority in that area to require companies to hold production lots until test results have come back.

As of May, the industry’s efforts have been paying off with the number of recalls so far below the number at the same time the previous year.

Toward the future

As in other areas of a fast-changing industry and economy, ways to ensure food safety for beef products are in motion.

Rogers says that large universities that have great food and meat science programs do extensive research on the how and why of personal hygiene. Along with these programs, there are many training companies that have designed software that makes training easier to comprehend and more user-friendly. “I would like to see the beef plants doing more educating for the public, not only the employees,” he says.

Speed is what Huffman would like to see, especially from government agencies in the approval of new technologies to protect food safety. AMI Foundation has encouraged agencies such as the USDA and FDA to fast-track technologies, especially those that have already been proven in other areas of the food industry. Tests that can deliver results sooner are also high on his agenda.

Finally, Huffman has one more wish: “A more refined use of process control and less reliance on finished product testing,” he concludes. “Do more to manage the processing and [start] using statistical process control. Get away from zero tolerance in a single test and managing the process from start to finish.”