After contacting potential suppliers and vetting documents certifying their authenticity as suppliers of hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef, we decided to go to the source the farm in order to see the process for ourselves.
I visited a farm and met with a farmer who specializes in the raising hormone-free, antibiotic-free animals. His philosophy is that his way of raising cattle allows the animals to do what they were created to do, live outside year-round, and graze on natural grasses, and, of course, remain hormone and antibiotics-free.
As such, you will not find any temperature-controlled barns on the property, or buildings of any kind for that matter. The farmer pointed out that massive barns kept at 65 degrees Fahrenheit are for humans, and that animals don't want 65 degrees Fahrenheit, they were meant to be outside year-round. He called his approach the "conscientious farmer."
As we toured the farm I shared that as interest in the antibiotic-free, hormone-free market was growing, my biggest challenge was supply. While there is enough supply through his farms and the other farmers he has converted, I could not purchase the boneless beef for food safety reasons, as a significant portion of his animals were being processed at harvesters that did not meet our food safety intervention standards. By now it should be clear to the government that food science research has determined that multiple heat-based interventions should be mandatory in the industry.
I explained to the surprised farmer that my dilemma is that "antibiotic-free, hormone-free" does not mean safe and that like all of my supply, it must be harvested at a Cardinal-approved harvester.
Unfortunately for me, and others in the industry, harmful micro-organisms do not discriminate based on the quality, price or whether the boneless beef is free of antibiotics. The likelihood of E. coli O157:H7 occurring in boneless beef is not based on how the animal is raised, rather it is a culmination of how it is raised and harvested.
Harvest houses are where E. coli cross-contaminates with the meat, and it is unfortunate that many small facilities are challenged by not having enough critical mass to implement the multiple critical interventions needed to properly reduce and/or eliminate microbiological hazards to an acceptable level.
There are two issues hand. How to convince those that are marketing consciously raised beef to ensure that they are harvested in a facility that understands the importance of these food safety standards and base their purchasing decisions on food safety rather than cost. Secondly, and no less important, is for the industry to develop cost-effective interventions that can work for small harvesters, i.e. as effective as steam and hot water wash systems.
As my visit ended, the ‘conscientious farmer’ committed to me that he would continue to move other farmers to the ‘conscientious way’, and I, in turn, promised I would continue to convince those buying his animals to harvest them at the right facilities and to drive the industry to develop cost-effective interventions that are true "interventions" rather than "careful handling" as a way to supposedly destroy harmful bacteria.
I believe it occurred to both of us as I drove away that day, that perhaps the conscientious farmer had just met the conscientious manufacturer.
John Vatri is the director of food safety at Cardinal Meat Specialists Ltd., one of Canada’s leading burger and cooked protein processors.