Food safety: We're all in this together
Recent high-profile coverage of food recalls have Americans changing the way they look at food, and critics talking about the need to fix a system supposedly “gone wrong.” In fact, a recent survey funded by the Beef Checkoff Program found that more than 50 percent of consumers believe the number of foodborne illnesses is on the rise â€” despite Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data that indicates E. coli illnesses declined significantly in the past decade.
Food safety is not new to the beef industry. What may be new to consumers is the collaborative effort of every level of the industry, from farm to table, to find and develop new ways to bring each consumer the safest product available. Beef safety is more than an expectation, more than the effort of one single entity â€” it is the sum of the entire system, from farm to table.
Today the fact that the entire beef industry is serious about developing an effective, science-based, industry-wide approach to protecting the beef supply simply isn’t enough. We all need to take an active role in communicating beef safety efforts. Consumers want to know more about where their food comes from, and they’re trying to make sense of the competing messages in today’s fast-paced media environment. Knowledge of the beef industry’s side of the story provides a balanced perspective when they’re selecting foods they believe to be safe, wholesome and nutritious. If consumer trust in our ability to produce a safe product continues to erode, it is to the detriment of all parties. It is time we take an offensive approach to encouraging consumer confidence in nutritious, delicious beef.
Data shows the food industry as a whole needs to help consumers understand the actions we take and their own role in food safety. But where to start? Parents can benefit from having more information about beef safety, and passing that knowledge on to their children. Most consumers in a recent survey said they were “home-schooled” on hamburger preparation, with 57 percent of them saying a parent taught them how to cook burgers. Another 29 percent said their hamburger-making skills were self-taught.
Research shows that hamburgers and other ground-beef products should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F, as measured by an instant-read meat thermometer, for a safe and savory meal. Only 13 percent of consumers correctly identified 160 F as the proper cooking temperature for ground beef to ensure safety, and just 9 percent said they learned to use an instant-read meat thermometer to determine doneness. Clearly, room for improvement exists, and each segment of the beef-production chain plays an important role in communicating proper ground-beef handling and cooking methods to moms, dads and kids.
The Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo) was formed in 1997 to provide an open forum of communication between all industry partners as we work together to solve safety challenges. Under the premise that safety is a non-competitive issue, the Council allows industry executives, beef producers, university and government scientists, industry association executives, and experts that represent each segment in the beef food chain to talk openly about safety issues, share best practices and ultimately improve safety from pasture to plate. This cooperative effort clearly displays a deep commitment to further action to enhance the safety of the nation’s beef supply. And membership provides access to communication tools such as consumer-friendly resources and education campaigns such as Safe and Savory at 160. In the past year, the Safe and Savory at 160 program has continued in partnership with the checkoff’s retail marketing program to reach consumers at the point of purchase. Thanks to this collaborative effort, Safe and Savory at 160-branded materials have been displayed as part of Kroger’s national Safe Summer Grilling campaign, displayed in signs and brochures in retail stores across the country and online at www.Kroger.com.
Before you actively engage consumers directly, it’s important to gain a solid foundation of information and training on how to become an effective spokesperson for the industry. To this end, the Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) program was designed to facilitate positive industry activism. Funded by the Beef Checkoff and managed by NCBA, MBA is a self-directed online education program designed to equip industry participants to be grassroots advocates for beef. The six courses relate to the most common consumer inquiries, ranging from modern beef production practices, beef safety, animal care, nutrition, environmental stewardship and the Beef Checkoff. More than 1,100 students are enrolled to date and graduates have shared an overwhelming positive response to the program.
New York dairy and beef producer Glen Taylor said the MBA program, “gave us a lot of concise and up-to-date information about the beef industry … so that we are better equipped to deliver the message to the consumers, which today just seems to be a more and more important part of what needs to be done.”
Beef safety has been and will continue to be a dominant feature of the beef industry. But it cannot be addressed without considering the route that beef makes to the consumer’s table. This food chain begins on the farm, extends through processors and distributors, and ends with retail and food-service establishments having direct contact with consumers. While important food-safety trends are impacting the entire beef-production system, the final dimension in meeting beef-safety goals usually takes the form of optimizing the use of interventions and control points not only within individual segments but within the entire system as well. Now we can take it to the next level by communicating how our approach to tackling safety challenges has been successful and will continue to improve.
Every segment of the beef industry must unite behind effective programs aimed immediately at solving current food-safety issues in the beef supply, and aimed longer-term at solving the problems presented by other hazards already existing or that may evolve in the future. This effort requires everyone involved to evaluate their current approaches to beef safety and adopt new measures and collaborative efforts designed to enhance and support a comprehensive system spanning from farm-to-table.
Mandy Carr is the executive director, Beef Safety Research, for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). For more information, visit www.beef.org on the Web.