Recently, FSIS released Notice 05-09, “Measures to AddressE. coliO157:H7 at Establishments that Receive, Grind, or otherwise Process Raw Beef Products” and Canada has just rolled out “Annex O.” Essentially both documents are the same in that they are government’s best efforts at rolling out politically acceptable rules that will guide companies to do what they should be doing on their own.

Over the years I have learned just how powerful and powerless the government can be. The slaughter and farmer community are lobbying to make O157 someone else’s cost and responsibility through a very powerful lobby effort, and the smaller companies are crying that the new rules will put us all out of business. The government does not have the all-knowing magic wand to fix various industries issues and tries to provide enough science and tools to get the industry to fix situations themselves.

O157 starts at the farm and is spread by slaughter. It is best reduced or eliminated at that stage. The whole science and government food safety agencies know this, yet the industry continues to debate it…. insanity at its best.

That doesn’t mean we all don’t have a critical part to play -- i.e., grinders should specify controls at harvest in our specifications, plant audits and consumers cooking their meats. (I will write on what to look for in a slaughter audit next edition.)

The best thing that has come along is heat treatment at slaughter coupled with multiple interventions and robust testing. Science has proven this works.

Now we need our trade associations and the companies they represent to all align on a message to government that allows government to enforce what, as an industry we know is right. We must do what we can to protect consumers and not wait for FSIS to force it.

I was recently asked a question: Why would a packer invest in “N-60” testing and put their entire day’s production (or lot) in jeopardy of testing positive, when they are not required “by law” to do so?

My answer: All of the major packers in the U.S. and Canada are currently doing the N-60 testing (not necessarily in a standardized format ... which we need to get to). They do this because they can minimize their exposure in a recall situation down to a very small lot size making it a damn good economic decision. Going the extra step to provide the label would be a minor cost and potentially even a savings when executed. The large slaughterers also need to stay leading edge in order to ensure that the large-end operators (i.e. Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Sysco, etc.) will continue to purchase from them. Any small slaughter operation that does not take this investment step is at risk of losing all of their business as the FSIS policies progress (once again a smart economic decision).

It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when.

Brent Cator is president of Mississauga, Ont.-based Cardinal Meat Specialists, one of Canada’s leading burger and cooked protein processors.