WICHITA, KANSAS – Cargill’s Meat Solutions division has, for several years, been at the forefront of E. coli control in the U.S. beef industry. In fact, back in 2001 the company was the first major beef packer to use the test-and-hold protocol in the effort to keep the pathogen out of distribution channels. The company’s vice president of technical services, Angie Siemens, tells MEATPOULTRY.com how Cargill is using test-and-hold today.

MEATPOULTRY.com: How has Cargill’s use of the test-and-hold protocol for ground beef changed since the protocol was first instituted by the company?

Angie Siemens: Cargill has instituted a number of enhancements to product testing since the first ground beef testing was conducted in 2001. We have multiple testing models depending on the facility needs. In the primary fed beef facilities, ground beef continues to be tested. There have been seven sampling or testing enhancements over the last eight years, and each enhancement included one or more of the following: increasing the number of samples per lot, increasing the size of the sample, upgrading to a new testing methodology (PCR based) or enhancing the testing methodology (enrichment broths and enrichment times) to increase the sensitivity of detection.

Cargill also has robust trim testing programs in the fed beef and regional beef plants. Similar to the ground beef program, the trim testing program has evolved with enhancements in the number of samples per lot, the size of the sample and a methodology change.

Cargill has also instituted a secondary test-and-hold procedure for frozen ground beef patties. Our analysis has shown that the frozen ground beef patty takes longer to reach 160°F and as a result can be undercooked. To provide an additional hurdle to the food safety system, in our U.S. facilities, Cargill is testing finished frozen ground beef patties made from previously tested negative beef trim.

Each enhancement was carefully evaluated based on historical results, scientific review and best practices.

MEATPOULTRY.com: Test-and-hold was controversial in the industry when first instituted but it is now widely accepted. In your opinion and experience, what caused the industry to change its view?

AS: We felt this was the appropriate course to take. We cannot speak for why others did things.

MEATPOULTRY.com: Test-and-hold requires careful time and inventory management. Could you describe how Cargill manages test-and-hold in its beef processing plants?

AS: Inventory management is a key to successful test-and-hold programs. Cargill has developed programs to track individual lots, both ground beef and trim. The lots are identified at production and each lot is sampled following specific protocols. Each case and combo within a lot is identified with its respective lot number. The lot number is managed in inventory and corresponds to a testing sample and ultimately to a certificate of analysis. We have a team of very talented individuals that manage the combining of results, loads and certificate of analysis.

MEATPOULTRY.com: Would test-and-hold be appropriate for other products besides ground beef?

AS: As I mentioned, test and hold is routine for beef trim as well as for primary and secondary ground beef testing. Other products are subjected to test-and-hold including ready-to-eat products for Listeria monocytogenes testing. The protocol for test-and-hold is applicable for all products as long as lotting and inventory management is applied.

MEATPOULTRY.com: The industry has made vast improvements in ground-beef safety since 1993, yet as the spike in E. coli recalls in 2007 suggests there are still more improvements to be made. In your opinion and experience, what’s the best, most effective food-safety strategy for ground-beef processing?

AS: Test-and-hold must be part of an overall strategy. It cannot be the only strategy that a company employs as its use cannot guarantee total food safety. Cargill uses multiple interventions and programs in addition to test-and-hold to mitigate the risk. Our food safety system encompasses many hurdles, including hide-on carcass washes, pre-evisceration organic acid rinses, post-evisceration organic acid rinses, thermal treatments (hot water or steam pasteurization systems), carcass cooler treatments and pre-fabrication treatments. Product testing is one component of the hurdle food safety system.

We currently are increasing our research investment in pre-harvest interventions, new and novel technology for the harvest process and in direct product applications. It will take all of these technologies and approaches until we can remove E. coli from its host environment.