After announcing the recall of approximately 96,000 lbs. of ground beef in May 2009 over concerns the product could have been contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, officials at Valley Meats LLC took the food-safety bull by the horns. Since the recall, the company has implemented a mandatory three-step process to prevent the likelihood of another incident at its 30,000-sq.-ft. food-processing facility in Coal Valley, Ill.

“Food safety has always been a No. 1 priority at Valley Meats, and we believe the continued growth and success of the company requires that we be in the forefront of food-safety programs in the industry,” says Jeff Jobe, president. “In late 2009, we instituted an intervention step using the Sanova disinfectant system to continuously spray the surfaces of fresh raw materials used to produce ground-beef products. In addition, we instituted test-and-hold procedures on individual lots of finished ground-beef products.” The company also tests raw products as they enter the plant.

With annual revenues of $40 million, Valley Meats employs 70 people and processes approximately 20 million lbs. of meat products per year for retail and foodservice-based customers. Approximately 90 percent of these products are fresh and frozen ground-beef products. Valley also cuts steaks and chops and has a broad line of value-added products. In addition to beef products, Valley also processes a wide variety of pork products. Approximately half of its products are sold under the J&B brand and the other half are custom formulations.

Making safer products
J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, said recently that industry-wide investments in technology, research and more sophisticated process controls over the past decade have resulted in incidents of pathogens in beef products dropping 45 percent. E. coli incidence today is less than one-half of 1 percent of beef products, he added. But Jobe wants to take his company’s food-safety focus above and beyond the industry norm.

Like many other grinding operations, Valley Meats now uses the disinfecting agent Sanova, which consists of sodium chlorite and citric acid and it kills bacteria on contact as a pre-treatment processing aid to disinfect all facets of irregularly shaped raw materials.

Jobe feels Sanova provides the best assurance that ground beef produced by his company will be free of pathogens, such as Salmonella and E.coli O157:H7 without affecting the meat’s quality, taste or color.

“For many years prior to late 2009, we have required that each lot of raw materials used for grinding to be tested for E. coli O157:H7 prior to receiving using the N60 testing procedure,” he adds. “This testing is performed by our raw-material suppliers who send Valley a COA [certificate of analysis] prior to receiving. Valley also does plant audits of its suppliers and runs additional tests of its own on each supplier to verify their testing protocol and to validate their test results.”

Valley had been having discussions through its affiliation with the North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP) with industry food-safety experts about an appropriate intervention step since early 2009, Jobe continues. “Valley, which produces product under its own J&B brand label as well as custom formulations for other meat processors, distributors and enduser operators, had familiarity with test-and-hold procedures because of a program it was employing for one of its meat-processor customers ,” he says. “Valley wanted an intervention step prior to implementing test-and-hold procedures to lessen the odds of getting E. coli O157:H7 positives.”

Valley decided to pursue Sanova as an intervention step because of recommendations from industry food-safety leaders, and because Sanova was being used successfully at other grinding operations, some of which were also NAMP members, Jobe says.

It took a significant amount of testing and verification by Ecolab (the owner of the Sanova system) to prove the efficacy of the system based on the raw materials and processes used by Valley Meats.

“After implementing Sanova, we knew we wanted to go one step further and put in place a test-and-hold program for finished ground-beef products to provide our customer base with the safest possible product,” he adds.

Testing for safety
Samples of finished product are taken from Valley’s grinding lines after final grind during each 15-minute period. “Typically, this occurs for 19 hours during our day and night shifts,” Jobe explains. “Production is finished between 11 p.m. and midnight, followed by sanitation. Early the next morning the samples are couriered to Silliker lab in Madison, Wis. where they are tested for E. coli O157:H7. The results are usually complete within 30 hours. The ground beef is cleared early in the morning on the second day after it was produced. “Prior to obtaining the negative results on the samples, the finished goods are cordoned off in our freezers or coolers and released upon obtaining the negative test results,” he adds. “We have worked with Silliker to typically get the results in time for our in-house truck fleet to leave early in the morning to make its deliveries.’

Fresh raw materials are sprayed in the auger system right before grinding. “We selected the Sanova System based on results from the validation process and testing,” Jobe says. “We are seeing log reductions of approximately 2 logs.”
The company feels very positive its three-step process is at the forefront of safety programs in the meat industry, and that it is providing its customers and partners with products that have gone through its three-part safety program.

“Current and potential customers are very pleased with our safety programs,” Jobe says. “Our customers have been supportive of the logistics issues that the test-and-hold program creates. For example, Valley Meats has always prided itself on its superb customer service and historically has been willing to do last-minute processing to meet customer needs. Obviously, with test-and-hold you cannot produce and ship immediately so we have had to make some adjustments in this regard – better planning and more inventory have solved most of these issues.” Should a pathogen be discovered during testing, the entire lot is either sold to a cooker – a company that cooks or sells prepared meat (E. coli bacteria is destroyed when properly cooked at minimum temperatures of at least 160ºF) – or the lot is destroyed.
“Growing existing customers and obtaining new customers is still a function of the quality and value associated with your products and the service and ideas you provide your existing or potential customers,” Jobe says. “Having a state-of-the-art safety program does tend to take the foodsafety issue off the table.”

Test-and-hold growth
When asked if he thought more US beef processors will begin to routinely employ test-and-hold inventory management protocols such as his company is now doing, Jobe replies: “We feel that more and more customers will start to request finished goods test-and-hold procedures. Also,[we think] there are various legislative proposals that discuss finished goods test-and-hold.”

All product must be traceable back to the production lot and must be on hold status and not released until all results for the production day are available and it has been determined that product meets the stringent testing standards, James Sommer, Valley Meats head of production, said in an earlier company press release.

The costs of test-and-hold, however, are not insignificant and involve the costs of the lab testing including the courier service, the QA personnel needed to implement the program, the working capital cost of needing to hold inventory, the capital cost of the added inventory storage space and racking and the costs of the samples sent for testing. “There is also the cost associated with product that cannot be sold in to our normal channels in the event of a positive test result,” Jobe adds.

“We know we cannot stop in our efforts to stay at the forefront of the food-safety issue,” Jobe adds. “Even with everything we have incorporated to date in our food-safety program, we continue to research new processes and procedures to assure that we stay a leader in food safety.”