This is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions. We in the food industry have been given our New Year’s resolutions for the next decade with the release of Healthy People 2020 (HP 2020), the most recent set of public-health objectives established by the federal government.

Like its predecessor (HP 2010), this version of Healthy People includes the objective of reducing foodborne illnesses related to Campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella. HP 2020 sets revised objectives in terms of the number of illnesses per 100,000 population.

The 2020 numbers are lower than the 2010 targets (except for Salmonella). The HP 2020 objectives also include, for the first time, a 10 percent reduction in outbreaks attributable to specific commodities; prevention of any increase in antibiotic resistant strains of Campylobacter and Salmonella, and improvement in safe handling practices in the home and at foodservice establishments.

The New Year’s Resolution addressed here is how to meet the new E. coli O157:H7 objective. Previous efforts on this pathogen are the only success story for HP 2010. The 2010 target of 1 illness per 100,000 population was achieved in 2004 and 2009 and barely missed in 2005 (rate was 1.06) with 2010 not yet reported. Based on these successes, the government has set the 2020 target for 0.6 illnesses, a 40 percent reduction.

In my view, we will not be able to achieve this new level unless there are substantial improvements, and — as has been the case ever since this pathogen was declared an adulterant — the improvements need to occur at slaughter.

At slaughter, some potential improvements are in development, such as vaccines; others are just beginning to be used, such as bacteriophage, and there are newer interventions that show promise. That said, there are opportunities for improvement at slaughter today in terms of better consistency in sanitary dressing and application of interventions.

Moreover, all packers need to conduct an aggressive, effective sampling and analysis of trim. Without this sampling, a packer is unable to verify its food-safety system is effective. Of the outbreaks I have worked from 2007-2010, in all but one, no packer that conducted an aggressive N-60 excision sample even had product in the implicated blend.

Unfortunately, we cannot expect significant new reductions at processing. Finished product testing can identify product to divert, but it does not, by itself, prevent the presence of the pathogen. There are no viable silver-bullet interventions today that can be employed at processing that eliminates pathogens on the raw materials.

To be sure, processors can have some impact in terms of surface treatments and especially treatment of any injection solution or marinate. Yet, these activities are primarily to prevent cross-
contamination, not prevent contamination in the first instance.

However, there are opportunities for improvement in processor purchasing.

To modify an old cliché: “You are what you buy.” Processors have the responsibility and obligation to know what they are buying and how it was produced. Processors should learn what to look for and what to ask.

No one would buy a car on the basis of price alone — one would research on the Internet, ask friends, take test drives, etc. Applying the same standard of care to buying raw beef can drive improvements, which, in turn, will start us down the road to meet our new resolution: a 0.6 illness rate or less.