So, if one is in charge of food safety at a beef harvesting facility – or several of them – is it microbes, specifically pathogenic microbes, that keep a microbiologist up at night?
Dr. John Ruby, technical services, food safety, JBS, explained at this year’s International Livestock Forum at Colorado State Univ. that microbes are the target but people and processes are key.
Planning and process
Ruby has a schematic drawing of the way one could view an optimal plan of cooperation between industry segments to best control pathogens. First, producers would have available effective feed additives or vaccines to reduce the amount of pathogen shedding in manure, and consequently, on hides, reducing the pathogen load coming into the packing house. Second, the packer would continue present interventions: hide washes, carcass washes, sub-primal sprays, trim treatments and a cold chain. Third and fifth, both further processors and retailers would use sub-primal sprays, trim treatments, a cold chain and age specifications as appropriate interventions for their segment. Fourth, grinders would do trim treatments, maintain cold chains and age specifications. Sixth, the transporter needs only to supply the cold chain.
That’s in a perfect world. What about the harvest process itself?
Ruby holds three truths of the harvest process: 1) One cannot dress a carcass without transferring some microorganisms to the carcass surface; therefore, you need a strong mechanical intervention system to control the microorganisms. 2) One cannot implement a mechanical intervention system strong enough to overcome a poor carcass dress job. As a result, 3) One needs both a robust dressing procedure and a strong mechanical intervention system.
According to Ruby, when it comes to the dressing process, the focus must be on prevention rather than correction. A dressing audit system monitors standard operating procedures and visible defects, partially through camera systems and third party audits.
JBS’ multiple hurdle intervention system includes a hide wash, pre-evisceration wash, a final wash, a chill, a cold carcass spray and a sub-primal spray. Just like in the car wash when a vehicle is extra muddy, sometimes some pre-wash work is needed before the hide wash.
JBS uses all the potions modern packers do these days, including rinses of organic acid and hot water washes. As they have tweaked their systems, they have leaned more toward the organic acid rinses. That is because even though hot water treatments are very effective as an immediate kill of organisms, organic acid treatments seem to have a continued antimicrobial effect through the plant process. The beef industry is challenged at times to apply effective interventions such as bromine technologies, as some of these technologies are not approved in some export markets as of now.
Ruby says when it comes to the E. coli situation, interventions are improving. 2015 was a better year, but since they changed multiple variables, he wasn’t sure just how much the environment might have changed and how effective specific new procedures were. But they have tried to make components of the intervention systems – and the people involved – more accountable.
Interestingly enough, when asked about temperature, humidity or other climate conditions, seasons or geography as being correlated with heavy pathogen loads or E. coli runs, Ruby said extensive monitoring yields but one clue: August. Evidently, microbes are not as predictable as we would like them to be. Or, they are for nearly all the year.
They did see significant reduction in pathogen counts after changes made last year in their system. Is that their best system? Maybe, Ruby said.
“We’ve made improvements,” he said. “It all still costs millions. We’re always looking to optimize our anti-microbial applications without jeopardizing the system’s effectiveness for food safety, but there’s lots of work out there.”
It is very difficult to correlate results to charts to happenings, he said. There is more data to look at but it is not as obvious how much room for improvement there is. “Prediction Microbiology” has a lot to learn, he thinks.
Of course, it’s not enough to do interventions. Testing samples are taken for microbial testing at very specific points in the process. Perhaps reflecting his military experience, Ruby speaks to “Threatcon Levels” to classify what is happening in the packing house, especially on those days where the system is really getting tested.
If all tests have come up negative, the level is “Normal.” As soon as one test indicates a “presumptive event,” the Threatcon level becomes “Alpha.” That indicates there is a glitch in the system that needs fixing. The presumptive product is isolated, tested and product that has tested negative is released. More than one presumptive event triggers Threatcon “Bravo.” That signifies multiple, sporadic presumptive events. “Charlie” indicates multiple presumptives at levels in the process where subprimals may need to be addressed. Believe it or not, there is another level, “Delta,” in the very rare event where there is some type of systemic contamination affecting the majority of a day’s production.
Any presumptive event is tracked to a time and place in the process, i.e. the round line or strip line or rough meat line. When pressure is put on the system, if events start happening, Ruby points out it is critical to identify the affected product and carefully control its movement.
JBS is testing for E. coli in trimmings destined for ground beef, which is a logical way to demonstrate the system’s effectiveness. It tests every combo bin destined for grinding.
The company has also run some tests comparing the microbial counts at “hide on” and “hide off” stages at different times of the year. At both northern and southern plants, the incoming microbial load can be higher in the colder winter months, also driving the “hide off” microbial counts higher and putting more pressure on the intervention system. This indicates that even though the warmer months tend to have more E. coli O157:H7, data demonstrates that pathogens are also present in the winter months and the plants need to be cognizant of that.
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Behavior and culture
The packing business is a people business, especially as it involves culture and behavior. During his presentation, Ruby put up a “Speed Limit-75” road sign on the screen. He noted that most folks’ culture interprets that to mean they can go 80. So the behavior is to drive 80 and the culture says it is acceptable to do so. However, that’s not so in Lancaster County, Nebraska. Ruby confessed that his behavior of going 80 mph in a 75 mph zone got him a speeding ticket. Ruby’s point was that our behaviors have consequences so we need to make sure that employees are using the right behaviors in the packing plants, regardless of their culture to maintain food safety.
Will people change their culture? Ruby said a person’s culture is set by the time that person gets to the packing industry.
Why does the US have the most effective military in the world? Not all people have military culture in them. The military has mastered the art of substituting their culture regardless of your culture, to achieve the behaviors they are looking for.
Ruby says, we have to focus on teaching employees how to behave in regard to food safety. If we can’t get our employees to perform the basic tasks like washing equipment, how will they handle the complex dressing process properly?
Know that personal culture is important first, Ruby said. Then find ways to influence behavior independent of that culture. Over time, the hope is that repetition will take hold.
The important next step for the industry will be pre-harvest intervention, Ruby said, but it is hard to do, expensive and there are a lot of unknowns. He says opportunities still exist that pose challenges, but collectively the industry must remain committed to improving.