Ground beef patties on a conveyor belt at Jensen Meat Co.
US ground beef processors are effectively battling bacteria in ground-beef production.

Despite decreasing overall annual beef production totals in recent years, the US still produces an extraordinary amount of beef. Beef slaughter-production totaled 25.8 billion lbs. in 2013; 25.9 billion lbs. in 2012; 26.3 billion lbs. in 2011; 26.4 billion lbs. in 2010; and 26.1 billion lbs. in 2009, according to the US Dept. of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

And when you peel back the layers to expose the ground-beef category, its production numbers are equally as impressive. Ground-beef production has declined in the past five years from 9.25 billion lbs. to 8.75 billion lbs. due to a decline in total beef production, explains Steve Kay, editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, Petaluma, Calif., and veteran editorial contributor to MEAT+POULTRY magazine. “Beef imports going into ground-beef production have remained near-constant during those five years,” he adds.

Ground beef is a primary ingredient for countless retail and foodservice products in the US, including hamburgers, meatloaf, meatballs, taco meat, a variety of sausages, pasta meat sauce and dried-meat snacks that are loved by millions of consumers. And when it comes to hamburger consumption in the US, it remains high because Americans are hooked on an increasing range of hamburgers being offered at retail and foodservice. US hamburger consumption in 2012 (the most recent year tracked) was 29.6 lbs. – up from a low of 21.9 lbs. in 1970 yet down from 36 lbs. in 2002, according to last year’s Meat & Poultry Facts.

Eliminating bacteria during ground-beef production is not easy due to the sheer volume of product being produced each year, among other things. Harmful bacteria is ubiquitous, invisible to the human eye, odorless, some are very hard to detect – and always potentially dangerous. However, effectively battling bacteria is done daily by a cadre of front-line, US-based ground-beef processors.

Keeping it safe, wholesome

Worker reviews ground beef patty line at Jensen Meat Co.
Knowledgeable and a staff fully-engaged in food safety protocols is a requirement for producing safe ground beef.

Consuming meat and poultry products contaminated by pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella, Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli (STECs),Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus, can cause illness – and in extreme cases death. If pathogens are present when meat is ground, then more of the meat surface is exposed to the harmful bacteria. Grinding results in any existing surface bacteria to be mixed throughout the meat. And spoilage bacteria, which generally are not harmful, will cause food to deteriorate or lose quality by developing a bad odor or feeling sticky on the outside.

As a result, ground-beef processors have adopted a variety of policies plus use numerous interventions to ensure ground beef produced is safe and wholesome. Jensen Meat Co., San Diego, Calif., produces approximately 70 million lbs. of ground beef for patties, among other products, per year. Their relatively new facility in San Diego began operating on July 11, 2013. When MEAT+POULTRY visited that facility early last year, it was operating within 81,000 sq. ft. of its 150,000-sq.-ft. facility in the Otay Mesa Industrial Business Park of San Diego, several miles from the Tijuana border.

Jensen Meat Co. employs a number of policies and strategies to ensure its ground beef is safe and wholesome. Its Approved Supplier Programs for incoming raw material address a variety of things, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), specified risk material, foot-and-mouth diseases, feed, animal welfare/handling, third-party audit programs and a certificate of analysis stating raw materials are E. coli O157:H7 negative.

“We personally audit raw-material suppliers prior to choosing them as a supplier,” says Abel Olivera, chief operating officer. “And we randomly select three suppliers per month to conduct our own E. coli O157:H7 [testing]. We test every load of raw materials for APC [aerobic plate count], generic E. coli and Coliform as an indicator or verification of plant cleanliness, cold supply and dressing practices. We also do random visits to suppliers domestically and abroad.”

Jensen requires its suppliers to incorporate a minimum of two interventions. “We use Sanova as an antimicrobial intervention for all domestic raw materials,” Olivera says. “We are exploring UV [ultraviolet] lighting to add as a secondary intervention.”

Ground beef patty processing at Jensen Meat Co.
Ground-beef processors have adopted a variety of policies and interventions to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of ground beef.

New company staffers participate in an intensive training program in a classroom-type environment to ensure they are fully up to speed with the company’s Good Manufacturing Practices, Standard Operating Procedures and safety programs. Once they complete and pass the test, these employees are integrated into the production staff by wearing a color-coded hair net, which advises co-workers they should monitor their activities, plus these new staffers are assigned a production trainer for two weeks. At the end of that two-week period, they are tested again. If they pass, they are assigned white hair nets. If they fail, they are retrained.

“Our staff is fully engaged as part of our quality and safety,” Olivera says. “In fact, every employee has the right and authority to stop a production line if employee or product safety is at risk. We have fully staffed-and-trained quality-assurance technicians constantly walking the floor during production hours.”

Effectively cleaning and sanitizing the ground beef production area is a must. Jensen Meat Co.’s complete sanitation crew comes in and disassembles all equipment, washes and sanitizes it from the top down, and tends to the ceiling, walls, equipment, accessories and floors.

“We have a unique triple-inspection system to assure all equipment is fully cleaned and sanitized during the pre-operation inspection to avoid cross-day contamination,” Olivera says. “In addition, random swabs are taken after the sanitation process to monitor and track performance.”

The company’s major challenge in producing safe, top-quality ground beef remains E. coli O157:H7, Olivera says.

“It only takes one under-cooked patty for us to go out of business.” he says. “We are a big believer in interventions and continuously educating consumers and restaurant operators to fully cook our ground beef to 160°F.”

Cargill Ground Beef

Cargill is one of the largest producers of ground beef in the world, says Angie Siemens, Ph.D., vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory for Cargill’s Wichita, Kan.-based protein businesses. The company does not disclose volume numbers for competitive reasons.

Cargill takes a system approach in producing ground beef. “Our focus is simply on ‘safe beef,’ which helps to better ensure the safety of ground beef,” Siemens says. “We have detailed supplier requirements [a specific program] for all trim that is used by Cargill. Most trim used to produce ground beef comes from Cargill plants. Our requirements are aligned for both internal sources of trim and trim we purchase from approved suppliers.”

Additionally, the company follows ruminant feed-ban requirements related to preventing BSE. “We also use government-approved drugs to maintain animal health and reduce bacteria that pose a potential human health risk,” Siemens says. “We make no frozen patties thicker than 5/8-in. unless a customer’s cooking process can be verified. Thickness of burger patties makes a difference when it comes to food safety, especially the handling and preparation to ensure proper cooking. We also have an additional step used for frozen patties to better ensure the human health risk from randomly and naturally occurring bacteria is minimized.”

Microbial intervention steps Cargill beef plants employ during production include hide-on-carcass washes; thermal/steam washes; government-approved antimicrobials; N60 testing; validated testing methodology; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans; and HELIX (employee behavior). Harvest-line best practices include electronic monitoring via computer databases that flag trends and carcass mapping multiple times daily at each plant, which includes microbiology total plate counts to verify the company’s process controls are functioning as designed.

Cargill beef plants ensure employees involved in ground-beef production are knowledgeable on maintaining and promoting product safety throughout the ground-beef process via continuous training and verification.

Each day during cleaning and sanitation of Cargill’s beef-production areas, complete facility and equipment sanitation is assured, usually during third shift.

Some insiders claim the best way to consistently assure safe ground beef is to offer cooked ground beef, which Cargill currently does not produce

Cargill’s major challenge in producing top-quality, safe ground beef is supply constraints due to the US herd size. “An opportunity, which we embrace, is continuous improvement in food safety, which has resulted in the industry significantly reducing E.coli O157:H7 illnesses since that bacteria was declared an adulterant in 1994. Addressing randomly and naturally occurring bacteria that is found throughout the natural environment is a challenge. Resources required to ensure beef safety, such as water, [is also challenging],” Siemens concludes.