While meat and poultry slaughterers and processors are always looking for ways to make their plants and products safe, they must embrace at least two approaches to accomplish these goals.

They must take steps to prevent pathogens in the products they produce. In addition, and just as important, they must determine if there are pathogens already present in their plants. Without these two actions, it will be hard for them to achieve the success which is so critical to their businesses. Laboratory companies and other scientific suppliers help meat and poultry companies meet these goals. Auditing safety controls in plants and testing to see if pathogens or other hazards make it through plant operations are two major steps in the process.

“Auditing takes place to ensure compliance – that you’re meeting the rules and regulations associated with food safety and food quality. Depending on who does the inspections, it could be USDA (US Dept. of Agriculture), FDA (Food and Drug Administration) or third-party certification systems,” says John David, global scientific marketing manager at 3M Food Safety, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Making sure the raw materials that go into meat and poultry processing are safe is also important. “Manufacturers do this by ensuring what comes from suppliers is good – so they make sure their raw supplies will be without pathogens as they are made into products,” adds Raj Rajagopal, senior global technical service specialist at 3M Food Safety.

Birko Corp. headquartered in Henderson, Colorado, emphasizes the “seek and destroy” mission in plants – how environmental monitoring programs can play a critical role in keeping meat and poultry plants and the products produced there safe, especially ready-to-eat (RTE) products.

Management should be asking questions like, ‘Do I have my processes and hazards under control in my plant?’ — Elis Owens, director of technical services, Birko

“How can you be confident your plant is properly mitigating contamination risks, such as Listeria and other bacterial concerns on a continual basis? How do you know for certain that your facility’s food safety plan is effective? That’s where the crucial step of implementing an environmental monitoring program comes in,” says Elis Owens, director of technical services at Birko. He emphasizes that monitoring is critical for RTE products – such as lunch meat and jerky – from the processing stage to consumers’ plates.

An environmental monitoring program is a form of plant auditing, and it proves or disproves many things about a company’s food safety program. “For example, if the sanitation program is working,” Owens points out, “it can eliminate microbes from processing areas. It can remove niches or harborage areas where the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes has come from, or where it’s hiding out,” he says.

“Not only are these programs a best practice, but ongoing environmental monitoring is a requirement of the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). It’s of particular importance to RTE (ready-to-eat) processors, because there is not an additional kill step before it [RTE meats] gets to consumers,” Owens says. He points out that EMPs (Environmental Monitoring Programs) are a good way for establishments to keep process control. “Management should be asking questions like, ‘Do I have my processes and hazards under control in my plant?’ This is a way to help them do that,” he says.

Birko Corp. emphasizes the “seek and destroy” mission in plants.

David notes samples are taken by processing facilities and the government. “USDA will take product samples and surface swabs from the food processing environment. Both are needed to have a complete, holistic approach to food safety.”

Rajagopal adds, “You can then find sites where contamination is taking place. If there is ineffective cleaning, sanitation and sanitary design, pathogens can remain for a long time.” They’ve found Listeria surviving up to 10 years.

3M Food Safety and Cornell Univ.’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences recently teamed up and designed a resource, “The Environmental Monitoring Handbook for the Food and Beverage Industries,” which helps processors build and implement environmental monitoring programs.

Beyond testing

Testing for pathogens in products and plants is part of food safety, but not all of it. “The tests we provide are a look at what pathogens may be there. But these tests are certainly not preventive,” according to Mike Clark, a microbiologist and global marketing manager in molecular food diagnostics for Bio-Rad Laboratories in Hercules, California.

The reason is, these tests do not prevent pathogens and bacteria from getting into plants and into the food products being produced there, or into the food chain, he says.

“That’s why testing programs in plants can never replace what we call ‘good manufacturing practices (GMPs).’ These GMPs are part of a good strong HACCP program or system, which of course has been required many years in poultry and meat plants by USDA regulations. The GMPs include HACCP, sanitation, a complete food safety program. When you have that operating in a plant, then the risk of bacteria and pathogens, and possibly foodborne illness in consumers who purchase the food products, is reduced,” Clark says.

But product testing is needed in plants and plays a critical role in eliminating food safety threats. To identify problems in plants, Bio-Rad supplies its meat and poultry facility customers with real-time polymerase chain reaction (RTi-PCR or RT-PCR) or qPCR tests. This technology can be used to find pathogens like Listeria monocytogenesSalmonellaCampylobacterE. coli O157:H7 and non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) pathogens in plants or products.

“PCR can detect foodborne pathogens by generating many thousands, even millions of copies of DNA of the targeted pathogen,” Clark says. “This is a very sensitive and accurate test. The accuracy of our test is improved due to the continuous detection throughout the PCR test, not just at the end. By using this method, we’re continuously monitoring the test results, so we have the results even faster, including presumptive results faster.” Bio-Rad’s test line is called iQ-Check Real-Time PCR.

Audits are a complement to testing. They monitor and measure process control. Testing and auditing are used together. — Mike Clark, Bio-Rad Laboratories

Bio-Rad has just released an even more advanced testing solution based on Droplet Digital PCR (ddPCR). This process generates thousands of extremely small droplets, dividing a single sample into 20,000 individual reactions. This new solution from Bio-Rad is called dd-Check STEC, which is used to detect Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).

“It changes the way and speed STEC is found. For a STEC bacterium to be considered a pathogen, two virulence markers in a single bacterium need to be present. Droplet digital PCR can detect and confirm both virulence genes occurring in a single cell. It gives users a better and more accurate result,” Clark explains. Advantages include reducing the number of false positives. For fresh meat, confirmed positive and negative results can be back in as little as 24 hours.

Other methods don’t paint as accurate a picture, he notes, with presumptives confirmed or not confirmed as quickly. Slower methods also require meat and poultry products to be held longer.

Auditing assurances

A food safety audit provides information about how good the total food safety program is and assures the processor how well it’s working.

“Audits are a complement to testing,” Clark explains. “They monitor and measure process control. Testing and auditing are used together.” Both approaches can be used in plants of all sizes.

The 3M Molecular Detection System reveals presumptive positives in real time.“The 3M Molecular Detection System platform and its assays are used by food processors, universities, governments and contract testing laboratories around the world as a fast, accurate, easy-to-use and affordable method,” David says. “It overcomes limitations of conventional PCR by using progressive loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) to amplify DNA sequences to be highly specific and sensitive, then combine with bioluminescence to detect.”

Presumptive positives are revealed in real time, while negatives display when the test is complete. This is the primary method used by USDA-FSIS to detect Listeria and Salmonella.

Rajagopal points to 3M Clean-Trace Hygiene Monitoring and Management, which evaluates the effectiveness of cleaning procedures, and 3M Allergen Protein ELISA tests, a simple way to carry out targeted allergen testing.

Antimicrobials and pathogen reduction treatments remain an important method in the pathogen prevention arsenal for meat and poultry processors. Birko’s Owens says applying these to meat products reduces potential pathogens on meat surfaces. They follow dressing procedures, sanitation and carcass washing at slaughter plants. They include BirkoSide 15 & 22, Birkoside MP-2 & MP-3, USDA & FDA approved antimicrobials, and Beefxide and Chicxide, lactic/citric acid blends effective for E. coli and Salmonella for beef and poultry, as well as other products.