Pork is a major part of the American protein industry, both domestically and for export. Naturally, food safety is a priority for any pork processor.

By and large, pork is a safe product. According to Amanda Eamich, a senior press officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), from 2005 to 2008, there have been 25 recalls where pork was the only protein involved, 24 with the pork included with other meats and three recalls where it was unknown if pork was included.

According to Dr. Kenneth Petersen, FSIS Office of Field Operations assistant administrator, inspectors check each of the 111 million hogs processed in the United States each year.

“Their key focus is to make sure [the hogs] are healthy enough for slaughter but also have no foreign animal disease,” he says.

That is not a minor issue in an age where international travel is an everyday occurrence. Petersen points out that in 2007 there was a scare over foot-and-mouth disease being found in hogs. After testing, it turned out to be a false alarm. However, he says, it illustrates how the USDA monitors the livestock entering the food system.

“We’re kind of the final linchpin to identify things,” Petersen says, with veterinarians handling more complex cases.

A safe system

In modern times, very few diseases are found in pork that makes its way to the dinner table. Historically, according to Petersen,Trichinella spiraliswas the biggest concern. The parasite is the cause of trichinosis, a painful disease that can affect humans who eat undercooked pork. Thanks to modern husbandry, it is exceedingly rare in the United States. A voluntary certification program recently begun by the USDA, with the support of organizations like the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), is to satisfy the needs of the export market. Even then,Trichinellais not something that inspectors will find.

“It’s not something you can inspect for,” Petersen says. “It’s something you can do outreach about. We still tell people cook to 160 degrees, something we’ve done for decades.”

The FSIS does cover other food safety risks in its inspections. In fact, the majority of recalls for pork in the past three years has been for biological contaminations such asListeria monocytogenes.

“With Listeria, you have to have an aggressive sanitation process to ensure toListeriaon [ready-to-eat] products,” according to Petersen. Companies need to have sanitation measures in place and be testing for bacteria. He adds that numbers forListeriacontamination compared to the total number of products are low, but if it gets a foothold in a facility, it can be a significant problem.

Salmonella is another concern for pork processors and inspectors. Inspections for the Salmonella bacteria are made of pork carcasses. Petersen says that the carcasses must pass performance standards to be allowed to continue through to processing.

Standing guard

The purpose of the FSIS is to ensure that illnesses don’t make it into the food chain. “Part of our job is to weed out any conditions that have that impact,” Petersen says. It is relatively rare for diseases that swine acquire to be able to infect humans. Some pneumonias can affect people, along with intestinal and head infections. However, he says, that those kinds of infections are found in less than one percent of the 111 million hogs that move through the system every year.

Avian influenza, despite the attention it’s gotten worldwide, is not a major concern in the pork industry. Petersen says that a majority of American hogs are raised indoors, in large sheds that don’t allow exposure to wild birds that could be considered at risk for the flu. The USDA does still monitor for its appearance with different agencies covering both domesticated animals and wildlife.

The FSIS also checks for drug residues, he says. This is monitored by the veterinarians on the inspection team. The vets randomly test for drug residues, especially antibiotics.

“You can’t give these animals certain drugs in a certain period before slaughter,” Petersen says. If the drugs are found, the issue is with the pork producer. The FSIS will then work with the producer and the Food and Drug Administration to resolve the problem.

Although the responsibility for proper drug use is the responsibility of the producers, repeated violations at a single processing plant will bring attention. Then it becomes an issue for a company’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan.

“It’s a multi-hurdle process,” Petersen says. “Animals that are diseased, we take that out. We weed out along the way. You overlay Listeria controls so you don’t create a problem.”