In the past 20 years, the U.S. beef industry has spent billions of dollars attempting to reduce the amount of pathogens in raw beef. The results have been impressive. Incidences of contamination by E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella have declined and there have been fewer product recalls due to possible contamination. Most importantly, there have been fewer illnesses and deaths linked to pathogen contamination.

However, positive samplings for E. coli began to spike unexpectedly in 2007. Even today, the definitive cause isn’t known. The result is that food safety, after demand, remains the top issue for the meat industry.

Several developments took place over the past several months to confirm this. First, California meat processor Huntington Meat Packing expanded an earlier recall of products six-fold to 5.6 million lbs. of beef products possibly contaminated with E. coli. This came after the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture said the firm produced the meat in a manner that did not follow its plant’s HACCP plan. Huntington’s added recall of 4.9 million lbs. of beef and veal products followed a January recall of 800,000 lbs. The new recall included 14 lines of beef and veal products, produced from Jan. 22, 2009 to Jan. 4, 2010. Clearly, something went wrong at Huntington, says Rosemary Mucklow, National Meat Association director emeritus. But the extension of the recall should not be considered a basis for concluding that the meat industry is unable to police itself, as has been claimed by some politicians. Regrettably, Huntington did not have the systems in place that are a basic requirement, she says. It is certainly fair to have questions about how and why this can happen. But people need to wait until the OIG investigation is complete to accurately understand the failures, says Mucklow.

USDA hints at “spent cows”

Meanwhile, Alfred Almanza, FSIS administrator, recently hinted that his agency might like to see a category of cattle similar to spent hens that could include cull cows whose beef would be cooked or canned. FSIS seemingly wants to discourage packers from processing for the raw beef supply, cattle that might pose food-safety risks. The hint came during a roundtable discussion during NMA’s annual conference last month. Almanza said the Obama administration’s efforts to take a more “holistic approach to inspection” includes focusing on the risks associated with animals slaughtered for raw beef product. Meat processors need to assess whether the risks associated with buying and slaughtering animals that pose food-safety risks is worth the cost savings, he said.

A packer in the audience then asked him if FSIS might treat these cattle like the poultry industry treats spent hens, which pose no food-safety concerns, but because their meat is of low quality, poultry processors utilize the meat in cooked or canned products. Almanza agreed this is in line with what he is thinking should be done with older cattle.

There is no correlation between the age of a cow and food safety, apart from the obvious one that older cows might be more likely to be carrying bovine spongiform encephalopathy, say food-safety experts. But in that regard, packers are required to remove Specified Risk Materials) from cattle. The older the animal, the more SRMS must be removed. Second, USDA has strict rules to prevent non-ambulatory cattle, or even those that appear sick, from entering a beef packing plant and therefore the food supply.

Third, Almanza’s comments don’t address that cattle, regardless of their age, have considerable economic value, say observers. Unlike a spent hen, meat from the oldest cows can made into highly palatable, nutritious consumer products simply by putting that meat through a grinder. Older cows are also of considerable value to beef ranchers. They derive 15 percent to 20 percent of their annual income from the sale of their culled cows, say analysts. What Almanza may have been implying, according to observers, is that some cows come to slaughter with unacceptable drug residue levels. This is an issue with dairy cows more than beef cows, according to experts.

Food safety on camera

Meanwhile, major beef processor Cargill in February began piloting a third-party remote video auditing (RVA) program as a food-safety tool in its 10 North American beef slaughtering plants. Cargill is already using Arrowsight Inc.’s system to monitor animal-welfare practices and is finishing the installation of the technology at all of its beef plants.

Based on the positive animal-welfare results, Cargill decided to extend the technology to monitor food-safety practices, it says. It is piloting the project at plants in Fresno, Calif. and Milwaukee. By watching real-time video, Arrowsight’s trained, third-party auditors monitor how consistently employees perform their work and provide constructive alerts and statistical feedback to plant management.

For the food-safety pilot, RVA will be used to review the stages in the process where workers clean and sanitize their knives and other pieces of equipment, says Cargill. Additionally, Cargill will apply the technology to monitor dressing procedures to ensure proper techniques are followed to reduce the potential for E.coli and Salmonella contamination.

“We’re working to eliminate the opportunity for cross-contamination,” says Dr. Angie Siemens, Cargill vice president for Technical Services – Food Safety and Quality. “We want to have the steps at the beginning of our process right to enhance the efficacy of our intervention technologies later in the process. The major objective of the video auditing application is to design a ground-breaking program that can further reduce the E.coli and Salmonella contamination.”

BPI goes transparent

Perhaps the most startling news to emerge last month was that innovative beef processor Beef Products Inc. (BPI) will start posting its test results for pathogens on its Web site. It hopes to publish its first results in two months time and all of its results within six to eight months.

BPI’s move is likely to raise the bar on food safety for the entire meat industry. BPI is already one of the industry’s leading food-safety advocates. It tests and holds more of its product than nearly all other companies and uses other processes, such as the use of ammonium dioxide, to eliminate deadly pathogens. It has never had a recall or illness associated with its products in its 30-year history.

BPI’s move follows a Dec. 31, 2009 New York Times story that questioned the efficacy of BPI’s use of ammonia as an antimicrobial treatment for its lean ground beef. BPI’s customers quickly rallied to BPI’s defense. But the story spurred BPI to see what else it could do.

“There have been some questions regarding BPI, its products and processes that have resulted from inaccuracies in recent media coverage,” Roth told the National Meat Association’s annual convention. “While it is tempting to take issue with each misstatement or any information not provided in proper context, we need to avoid that temptation and instead be focused on continuing to achieve and exceed the standards we have set for ourselves.

“BPI remains very confident in its food-safety systems and, in particular, the pH [ammonia] enhancement process,” he said. “But regardless of how many validation studies we conduct on the process, we know the proof is in the finished products that we produce. That’s why we have always been strong advocates of a rigorous, finished-product sampling and test-and-hold system. No matter how sure we are of the technology, we will remain committed to supporting the technology with the testing data provided by the test and hold system.”

BPI, based in Dakota Dunes, S.D., produces approximately 600 million lbs. of product per year. The industry standard for sampling is 60 samples per lot (N=60). BPI currently has an N=167 program and plans to expand it to N=334, says Roth. It recognizes it has not been perfect. No one is or will be. That is why it remains committed to a rigorous finished product sampling, test-and-hold program.

Depending upon serving size, BPI products have been a part of up to 20 billion meals per year, says Roth. It has committed itself to be the best and will work to continue earning everyone’s confidence and trust in BPI. One way to do that is by being completely open to everyone in terms of BPI’s finished product test results. It envisions a reporting system that will allow data to come directly from the labs and be viewable on BPI’s web site, and to be independently verified and audited, he says.

BPI’s data reporting will justify the trust and confidence people have placed in BPI or allow skeptics to gain that same level of trust and confidence in what it does, says Roth. It will reinforce to those who rely on meat companies to make good food-safety decisions that use of BPI’s products is the right decision. Such information may also allow for a broader public review and dialogue on attainable food-safety results and standards. Finally, it will help BPI keep the pressure on itself to set and achieve the highest standards possible, he says. Improved food safety and nutrition are the pillars upon which BPI has been built. It pledges to continue its efforts to support and enhance these goals for the benefit of the consumer, its customers and the industry, he says.

BPI is working on reporting the test results on its web site with explanations as to what the results mean, says Roth. This will include citing the overall industry’s test results. BPI prior to the NYT story had talked about reporting its test results. But saying you have found an E. coli positive comes with a certain amount of risk, he says. That’s despite BPI’s sampling program in 2009 having a detection rate of only 0.06 percent, versus 0.99 percent for the industry rate. But BPI felt posting the results was the right thing to do. The results will tell anyone who wants to know that BPI’s E. coli incidence is extremely low, he says.

How, and if, other beef processors might respond is unclear. One thing’s for sure: The focus will remain on detecting and reducing the presence of E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens in the U.S. beef supply.

Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Petaluma, Calif.-based Cattle Buyers Weekly
(www. cattlebuyersweekly.com).