By Lynn Petrak, Special Projects Editor
Allied collaboration and technology converge to help take the battle for food safety where it matters most.
For at least a dozen years now, the quest for food safety has been referred to in fighting terms. It is an ongoing battle to keep products — and ultimately consumers — protected from food-borne illness and food-related disease. There is a war on pathogens that has been declared by industry organizations, meat and poultry processors, university researchers, and technology suppliers who work in tandem on several important fronts. The stakes are high, and yet the goal of ultimate victory is clear.
The comparison is an apt one. But as anyone connected to the struggle well knows, this is a protracted engagement, and the industry is likely in the thick of it right now — facing down stubborn microbes as well as emerging concerns like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and avian flu.
“It’s far from being either a rising sun or a setting sun,” says Alden M Booren, professor and specialist in the department of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University and current president of the American Meat Science Association (AMSA).
Others agree that despite promising strategies in place and in development, there won’t be time to rest on any laurels. “Certainly, we continue to think it is important to look at the entire continuum — from the farm to the consumer — and identify areas within each individual species chain where you have the best chance to control the pathogen of concern,” says Randall Huffman, vice president, scientific affairs, for the Washington, DC-based American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF). “In some cases, there is a need to focus on processing plants, and in other cases there is a need to focus on pre-harvest. A combination of those activities will always be important.”
Processors, too, understand the nature of the food-safety battle.
“Food safety is a way of life now,” points out Warren Panico, vice president of operations for Bar-S Foods, Phoenix, AZ, adding that the most recent research and technology breakthroughs have given those in the industry a clearer perspective as they implement strategies in their facilities. “We have learned more about what we are fighting  — it’s Mother Nature we are fighting, and the pathogens are very resilient.”
Encouraging news
That said, those in the industry are just as resilient in their commitment to controlling problems. So many advances have occurred due to pooled efforts and the rapid pace of technology in recent years that Huffman says although the fight will continue, there is good news for those involved in meat and poultry production. “I’m encouraged, and I’m involved in this on a day-to-day basis,” he reports.
In fact, even as plant workers continue to suit up in protective gear, as employees apply the latest antimicrobials to products and use sanitizers to clean every inch of processing surfaces, and as laboratory workers put tools to the test, their efforts are having a real impact. Figures from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relays that infections linked to E. coli O157:H7 declined 36 percent from 2002 to 2003, the biggest decrease noted to date, while Campylobacter rates fell 28 percent, and Salmonella incidences dropped 17 percent. Cases of Listeria Monocytogenes are now near the stated goal of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Meanwhile, information released by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reveals that the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef is down 43.3 percent. Between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of positive E. coli O157 samples in FSIS regulatory sampling has decreased by more than 80 percent. As for Listeria, FSIS recently released a report indicating that the overall safety of ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products has improved due to steps taken in light of the agency’s interim final rule on the issue.
Indeed, these numbers show that the much-ballyhooed multi-hurdle approach is effective, says Huffman. “Intervention plays a key role — actions taken by the facility to control pathogens through better practices and sanitation, enhanced employee training, and new technologies that are available. You also have to consider the implementation of HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point programs] and the key role that government regulations have played in reducing pathogens over time,” he says.
The fact that so many segments of the industry are working together in such an approach is critical, adds Booren. “We sometimes don’t come off as team players, but we really are," he points out. "If you aren’t, you aren’t going to survive.” NP