CHICAGO — Controlling and eliminating E. coli O157:H7 is a major challenge for beef further processors, said Dr. James Marsden, Regent’s Distinguished Professor Food Safety & Security and associate director of the National Biosecurity Research Institute, Kansas State University.

His remarks came during the Prevention of E. coli O157:H7 — a two-day program currently underway in Chicago.

The North American Meat Processors Association is sponsoring the event with the support of BIFSCo and in collaboration with U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

In recent years, there has been an increase in incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef, as well as an increase in foodborne illnesses associated with beef, Dr. Marsden said. A major challenge facing beef processors and grinders is dealing with pathogens that enter their process in raw materials. "Processors have to rely on upstream interventions, testing of trimmings and the few available processing interventions to reduce their risk," he added.

Recent developments in controlling this pathogen include U.S.D.A. approval of a vaccine for cattle named Epitopix LLC, which research has shown an 86% reduction in the number of animals shedding and a 98% reduction of E. coli O157:H7 fecal contamination.

"A vaccine for cattle would also reduce environmental sources of E. coli O157:H7 that have been implicated in foodborne disease outbreaks from lettuce, spinach and other non-meat foods," Dr. Marsden said.

Another important control measure is post-chill carcass decontamination/pasteurization, which includes UV/Advanced Oxidation treatment of chilled carcasses, ammonia gas and carcass irradiation. When asked about carcass irradiation, Dr. Marsden responded, "In theory, you treat a whole carcass with electron-beam irradiation; the outside surface of the carcass is treated, but the meat inside the carcass is not — it doesn’t penetrate that far. The idea would be the carcass would be labeled as irradiated, but the meat derived from the carcass would not be labeled as irradiated."

The advantage at that point of the process is all contamination is on the surface of the carcass. "You have sterile meat inside the carcass and you eliminate microbiological contamination on the outside of the carcass. In theory, that’s the idea that’s being put out there for carcass irradiation," Dr. Marsden said.

Other E. coli O157:H7 control measures include improved systems for control of contamination during the slaughter process; High Hydrostatic Pressure for treatment of beef trimmings; UV/Advanced Oxidation technologies for sub-primals and trimmings; development of chemical anti-microbial treatments for slaughter and processing applications; improved sampling and testing systems from trimmings (N-60); and combining effective interventions to achieve a >3.0 log reduction on trimmings.

Dr. Marsden said an integrated process for controlling this pathogen is best and could include:

1. Vaccine for live cattle;

2. Washing live cattle prior to slaughter;

3. Enhanced slaughter interventions;

4. Post-chill carcass pasteurization;

5. Technologies to reduce surface contamination on sub-primals prior to blade tenderization;

6. N-60 testing for trimmings destined for ground beef and finished product testing to verify process control;

7. Interventions to reduce contamination on beef trimmings prior to grinding;

8. Pasteurization using High Hydrostatic Pressure or electron-beam irradiation;

9. Validated cooking procedures in restaurants;

10. Consumer education on safe food handling and cooking; and

Dr. Marsden also suggested including a thermal step in the hurdle process to maximize effectiveness.

Although industry can’t test safety into its products, Dr. Dan Engeljohn, deputy assistant administrator, F.S.I.S. Office of Policy and Program Development, said F.S.I.S. believes testing is extraordinarily important in raw beef operations because there are no fail-safe interventions that can be put in place at this time that can guarantee a carcass is not contaminated.