Over the years, I’ve heard many prominent industry executives insist while speaking at industry meetings and conventions that food safety should never be used as a marketing tool against competitors and that food-safety advances should be openly shared with all US meat companies. Despite such proclamations, I still visit plants where top execs won’t discuss the details of their food-safety interventions citing proprietary reasons.

The good news is there are companies that openly discuss what they’re doing in food safety...and such companies are generally food-safety leaders. Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill Inc. is one of them.

Mike Robach, Cargill vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs, recently gave a presentation entitled, Salmonella/Campylobacter Interventions in 2nd Processing…A Case Study, at the 2012 Poultry Processor Workshop held in Atlanta, Ga., which was sponsored by the US Poultry & Egg Association. Robach presented an overview of two ground turkey recalls Cargill conducted in August and September of last year, one being the largest in US history, which were associated with an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg.

In early November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a total of 136 persons were infected with a multi-state outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg reported from 34 states in recent months — and that this particular outbreak appeared to be over. Mike Martin, Cargill director of communications, told me at that time that approximately two-thirds of these illnesses were not linked to ground turkey.

Nevertheless, the first recall of 36 million lbs. of ground turkey initiated by Cargill in August was voluntary on the company‘s part and USDA did not approach the company to recall the product, Robach explained. Cargill’s second ground turkey recall happened in September and this time it was initiated by USDA. As a result, ground turkey operations at Cargill’s Springdale, Ark., plant were suspended for a time as company food-safety experts combed through the facility to find the source of this problem — which they were unable to trace back to its origin.

Last December, after USDA approved an enhanced food-safety plan, ground-turkey production resumed at Cargill’s meat processing facility in Springdale, Ark. All who were laid off have since returned to work for Cargill and the plant is fully staffed.

Cargill food-safety scientists explored all possible solutions to reduce the risk from Salmonella in ground turkey during the fourth quarter of last year. “No stone has been left unturned as we searched for answers to help us improve food safety,” said Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill Value Added Meats Retail.

As part of a multi-phase ramp-up of production at Springdale, one of four ground turkey production lines was first brought on line, with the others eventually following once food-safety enhancements were validated.

Cargill initiated the following food-safety actions at its Springdale plant:

• A total reassessment and overhaul of the facility’s food-safety plan.

• Implementation of several new food-safety measures, including more and better bacterial reduction steps.

• Created a three-phase ground turkey sampling and monitoring program.

• The facility now uses high-pressure processing (HPP) on its 85-percent lean ground turkey products to control Salmonella.

• An enhanced process-control monitoring system to ensure the company’s Salmonella-control program is generating the best possible results.

Cargill said the phased approach to resuming ground-turkey production ensured the enhancements to its food-safety program are working as designed. University, government and private researchers worked with Cargill to help speed-up developing new technologies showing significant promise for commercial application. An independent panel of food-safety experts also reviewed the plant’s food-safety program and provided additional insights.

As a result of the Cargill ground-turkey recalls, there is more and better sharing of best practices within the turkey industry, Robach said. “Food safety needs to be a shared responsibility across the industry,” he said. “We cannot differentiate ourselves by having food safety used as a competitive advantage. We need to help each other collectively. The ground turkey recall was a game-changing situation for the industry.”

Congratulations to Cargill for being so open and transparent about the recall hardship it endured and sharing with industry the food-safety steps its Springdale facility has taken to rectify this situation. Here’s hoping other companies will take Cargill’s lead and be more transparent about food-safety interventions they are using. All companies will benefit from learning more about evolving technologies and processing steps that could better enable them to produce the safest product possible.