Raising the Bar

Improving food safety requires a continuous improvement mindset and a “take-action” attitude from every link in the meat chain — from feed lot to packing plant to the consumer. Although victories are being tallied against a variety of common foodborne diseases, more needs to be done. After all, a lot is at stake.
Foodborne pathogens are responsible for an estimated 76 million illnesses annually in the United States, relays the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. Some of these illnesses result in death. In order to effectively battle foodborne illnesses, more needs to be known about them — and efforts to this end have been ongoing and are increasing today.
In 1996, CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established the FoodNet surveillance system to quantify, monitor, and track the incidence of laboratory-diagnosed cases of foodborne illnesses caused by Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Yersinia, and Vibrio. Since its inception, the FoodNet system has expanded to include nine sites and 41.5 million people, about 14 percent of the American population.
Good news front
On the good news front, the number of E. coli O157:H7 infections — one of the most severe foodborne diseases —dramaticly declined in 2003, decreasing a full 36 percent compared to the previous year, relay foodborne surveillance data released by CDC in late April this year. The data released by CDC in collaboration with the FDA and UDSA also show the incidence of three common foodborne diseases — Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Yersinia infections — continued substantial declines seen in the past eight years.
E. coli O157:H7 infections have declined 42 percent since 1996, while Campylobacter infections have dropped 28 percent, and Salmonella infections have decreased by 17 percent. Cases of other less common bacterial and parasitic foodborne diseases also have decreased by 17 percent.
“These findings are good news for Americans and signify important progress toward meeting HHS [Health and Human Services] ‘Healthy People 2010’ objectives for reducing the incidence of disease caused by these bacterial infections,” said HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson in late April. “However, we must remain vigilant and continue our work to make America’s food supply as safe as possible. Much work remains to be done, particularly in protecting our children from foodborne illness.”
USDA is committed to protecting public health through strong food safety systems, added Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.
“The Department of Agriculture has implemented a series of policies designed to control E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens,” she said. “We will continue to implement science-based systems to enhance our systems further to help continue the positive trend in foodborne illnesses illustrated in the CDC report.”
In releasing the data, CDC relayed in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, “The changes in the incidence of these infections occurred in the context of control measures implemented by government agencies and the food industry, enhanced food-safety education efforts, and increased attention by consumer groups and the media.”
E. coli incidences drop
During a media teleconference, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano acknowledged in an American Meat Institute Foundation  (AMIF) news release that the downward trends in foodborne illnesses in people and bacteria on meat and poultry products are closing in on a previously set goal.
“The reduction in E. coli O157:H7 illnesses brings the U.S. very close to achieving the ‘Healthy People 2010’ goal of 1.0 case per 100,000 people,” she said.
“Efforts by industry, individuals, and regulatory agencies seem to have us headed in the right direction,” added Robert Tauxe of the CDC.
“One of our central goals is to reduce and ultimately eliminate E. coli from fresh beef products, said Jim Hodges, AMIF president, in an article appearing in Foodquality.com.
“In 2001, the AMI Foundation declared that its two priorities would be to reduce and ultimately eliminate E. coli O157:H7 on fresh beef products and Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat products,” Hodges added in an AMIF news release. “Data collected by USDA have demonstrated sustained decreases over time in bacteria on the products themselves. CDC’s new data tell us that the enhanced safety of our products is having public health benefits.”
Working together
One decade ago, many meat processors debated on whether or not to market food-safety steps their companies were taking to gain a competitive edge. How times have changed.
In 2001 AMI member companies declared food safety a non-competitive issue and began sharing data technologies and ideas with one another in an effort to reduce bacteria and enhance safety, Hodges says. Meat-processing employees have participated in numerous educational events to share “best practices” for control of foodborne pathogens in meat products. The industry also invested several million dollars in research aimed at finding new and better ways to eliminate bacteria.

Many new and important technologies and practices have been deployed during this time period, including:
- Enhanced aggressive microbiological sampling and testing programs for E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Salmonella, and other bacteria
- Changes to cattle feeding practices that reduce bacteria in live animals
- Anti-pathogen technologies such as steam pasteurization cabinets, steam vacuum systems, and carcass-washing systems that destroy bacteria on carcasses and meat cuts during processing in fresh meat plants
- New ingredients that are being added to some ready-to-eat meat and poultry products to prevent the growth of bacteria
- New principles for sanitary design of plants producing ready-to-eat meat and poultry that help better sanitize and destroy bacteria in the environment

These developments resulted in promising reductions in bacteria on raw meat and poultry announced last year, including:
- Nov. 24, 2003 — USDA announced that the rate of Salmonella in raw meat and poultry dropped by 66 percent over the past six years and by 16 percent compared with 2002
- Oct. 17, 2003 — USDA released data showing a one-year, 25 percent drop in the percentage of positive Listeria monocytogenes samples from ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, and a 70 percent decline compared with years prior to the implementation of the HACCP system
- Sept. 17, 2003 — USDA released data showing a drop in the number of E. coli O157:H7 positive samples in ground beef collected in 2003 compared with prior years. Samples collected in 2003 showed a 0.32 percent positive rate for E. coli O157:H7, down from 0.78 in 2002 and 0.84 in 2001. Data for 2004 are on track to show even more marked declines, AMIF relays.
Behind the declines
Several factors have contributed to the overall decline in foodborne illnesses in recent months and years, insiders point out. Enhanced surveillance and outbreak investigations have identified new control measures and focused attention on preventing foodborne diseases. Of particular note, USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) implemented the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system in all 6,000 federally inspected meat, poultry, and egg product plants over a three-year period beginning in 1997. Since that year, FSIS relayed it has strengthened HACCP enforcement through innovative inspector training and implemented rules to force plants to install new technologies and other methods that prove they are effectively controlling dangerous pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella.
Other interventions include the FDA’s regulation requiring the refrigeration and labeling of shell eggs to prevent Salmonella Enteritidis infections; HACCP regulation of fruit and vegetable juices, as well as seafood; extensive food-safety education, publication and outreach of good agricultural practices for fresh produce, and increased regulation of imported food.
In mid-July 2004, Murano released “Fulfilling the Vision: Initiatives in Protecting Public Health,” a document that reviews the recent successes and builds on the course laid out last year to improve the prediction and response to food-safety challenges to further reduce the incidence of foodborne illness.
‘Fulfilling the Vision’ presents a list of accomplishments for 2003, including:
- Developing new FSIS employee training programs
- Strengthening food security measures
- Modernizing enforcement activities. The document also introduces many new initiatives to continue FSIS’ mission of ensuring food safety.
“We must use science to identify our greatest challenges and meet them head-on,” Murano said. “Ensuring the safety of our food supply will require the active participation of everyone who produces, processes, and prepares meat, poultry, and egg products.”
These initiatives include:
- Enhancing data integration —FSIS is developing what it calls “innovative ways” to anticipate and predict food safety risks to protect public health. The agency is examining ways to secure and analyze a wealth of data obtained from industry and other sources so trends can be recognized and problems quickly identified and corrected.
- Applying risk into regulatory and enforcement activities — FSIS is beginning to field-test the Hazard Control Coefficient (HCC), a measurement of the effectiveness of pathogen controls used by individual establishments. The HCC establishes the level of plant compliance through an analysis of in-plant and agency verification testing, as well as inspection data. The HCC will help the agency better understand the frequency and types of food safety failures so that better responses can be designed and implemented.
- Collecting and connecting public health surveillance data — FSIS is working with the CDC and the FDA on public health trends. Data that links foodborne illness outbreaks with specific foods need to be connected with prevalence data of specific pathogens in specific foods. The Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, or FoodNet, allows the agency and its partners to work toward this end by determining the burden of foodborne disease, monitoring foodborne disease trends, and determining the extent of foodborne diseases attributable to specific foods. A critical component of this goal is the development of a mathematical model to help estimate illnesses caused by various food commodities.
- Improving food safety beyond our borders — FSIS is working to establish a Food Safety Institute of the Americas (FSIA) to merge the region’s resources and provide a focal point for the exchange of food safety information throughout North America. The agency wants to assist in the development of common food-safety standards and harmonize food-safety education, information, and communication throughout the region. Early in August, FSIS’ Murano announced the establishment of the FSIA, a cooperative educational and research organization designed to promote food safety and identify and develop educational programs throughout the Americas.
- In June, Murano signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Pan American Health Organizations to improve the safety of meat and poultry products that are traded among the nations of the Western Hemisphere.
The establishment of the institute was one of the goals listed in “Fulfilling the Vision: Initiatives in Protecting Public Health.”
Many organizations — academic, governmental, and non-governmental — will be active partners in the FSIA. Food safety subject matter areas such as public health, food security, Codex, and animal and food production will be grouped into “colleges and departments” within the FSIA and entrusted to centers of academic expertise. The FSIA also will tap into existing networks of universities and organizations within North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.
“By using existing expertise, we can place a greater emphasis on developing materials to fill gaps in food safety education and information,” Murano said.
FSIA will be located in Miami, FL. This location will enhance the institute’s ability to bring together experts quickly and to develop and carry out programs efficiently, the agency relayed. Linda Swacina, presently deputy administrator of FSIS, will serve as the senior agency representative and federal coordinator of all FSIA activities.
More needs to be done
Not all news from the CDC report in late April was good. That data also reveal that the incidence of Listeria, which had been decreasing the previous four years, did not decline in 2003. The national Listeria Action Plan was launched in 2003 to increase prevention efforts in the food chain, and a method is being developed to rapidly identify contaminated food items in outbreaks.
What’s more, the incidence of Salmonella Enteritidis, a common Salmonella serotpye, has also not changed significantly since 1996, demonstrating that additional efforts are needed to control this pathogen. CDC, FDA, and USDA are currently conducting a case-control study of sporadic cases of Salmonella and Campylobacter to find the best opportunities for prevention in young children.
Consumers also must step up to the plate in the battle against pathogens. One of the latest weapons at consumers’ disposal is www.meatsafety.org, a new Web site launched by AMI that offers consumers and the media comprehensive information about meat and poultry safety. The site also features information on safe cooking, handling, and storage of meat and poultry products.
“The Web site is designed to be a quick but thorough reference that will be constantly updated to provide timely information as needs arise,” said Randall Huffman, Ph.D., AMI Foundation vice president of scientific affairs. “By ensuring consumers understand basic and important information concerning meat and poultry safety, AMI can help ensure that meat and poultry products remain safe from farm to table.” NP