This month, the US Dept. of Agriculture is taking action to improve food safety before slaughter by convening three of its agencies highly involved in food safety – the Food Safety and Inspection Service, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service and the Agricultural Research Service. All three agencies will meet to discuss ways to improve food safety in beef before cattle are slaughtered.

FSIS, APHIS and the ARS will explore new ways to control pathogens in beef animals before they arrive at the slaughter plant. USDA is especially interested in exploring how pathogens can be controlled on live animals to reduce the possibility beef could become contaminated with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Salmonella and other pathogens. The discussions are centering on the latest research and workshop discussions. USDA’s main interest is in working with cattle producers and beef processors to develop best practices to be carried out mainly by producers.

This is not the first time USDA has tried to increase the emphasis on food safety on the farm and ranch. Due to how federal and state meat and poultry inspection laws are crafted, most attention, regulations and inspection are post mortem, focused on meat and poultry carcasses and products. While farmers and ranchers carry out food-safety processes, they’ve always felt they’re immune from the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act, which were developed to clean up what were filthy conditions in slaughterhouses.

It would be impossible for the government to put producers under regulations with the same strength as those faced by the slaughter and processing industry. Producers and processors are involved in very different operations. But for a long time, USDA and its agencies have felt food safety can’t begin at the slaughterhouse door, that it must go back to where animals are being raised and in the feedlots. Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA, says focusing on prevention at every stage of food production is the key to a safer food supply in the US. While USDA doesn’t have authority to regulate beef producers the way it can processors, it can work with producers to set up food-safety practices to be carried out by them to minimize food-safety risks.

Capturing attention

The issue has attracted one of the USDA advisory groups, the National Advisory Committee on Meat & Poultry Inspection, and its Salmonella subcommittee. In response to a request by FSIS for input on developing and putting into practice more effective policies to control human exposure to Salmonella, the committee recommended FSIS participate in this month’s meeting to develop preharvest best practices and compliance guidelines for livestock, and eventually poultry producers.  In the 1990s, ARS conducted research programs to evaluate technology and management methods, so producers could achieve lower contamination levels in animals being presented for slaughter. Three years ago, FSIS began to encourage pre-harvest interventions in cattle to help improve food safety throughout the farm-to-table process.

The agency was especially concerned about the conditions of animals entering plants before slaughter, as well as when slaughter actually took place; and the amount of contamination on the hides of the animals. All of these factors affect the ability to minimize risk at slaughter and afterwards.

FSIS has published pre-harvest guidelines to let beef slaughter establishments know about interventions that can be applied before slaughter, such as on-farm management controls to help reduce E. coli O157:H7 shedding in cattle. But it would make more sense to inform producers of these guidelines, and try to get them to implement the practices, rather than slaughterers and processors. FSIS is also recommending slaughter establishments obtain their cattle from beef producers who implement one or more documented pre-harvest management practices to reduce fecal shedding of pathogens.

USDA says pre-harvest interventions to eliminate fecal shedding of pathogens haven’t been found yet. But current research suggests at least two pre-harvest interventions, including certain probiotics – dairy foods or dietary supplements containing live bacteria added to the beneficial bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract – and vaccines could be effective in reducing fecal shedding in cattle.

Cattle producers should certainly be made aware of this development. And instead of FSIS encouraging slaughter plants to notify cattle producers about these developments, agencies like APHIS and others that work with producers should let them know directly what they expect in preharvest food safety.