CHICAGO — During last week’s 2009 Meat Industry Management Conference held in Chicago, Dr. James Marsden, North American Meat Processors Association senior science advisor and the Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Meat Science, Kansas State University, addressed the increase in the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in beef the past two years and how industry should respond.

Dr. Marsden said theories behind the spike range from complacency within the industry to changes in feeding practices and even the prevalence of unskilled, inexperienced workers filling jobs vacated after recent plant raids by immigration officials. Other possible reasons mentioned included climate change, anti-microbial resistance of the pathogen, and improved testing and detection methods.

"We don’t know the real reasons for the change in E. coli trends after watching it go down for years," Dr. Marsden said. "Whatever the reasons, after several years of steady decline there has been an upward trend in the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in beef over the past two years."

On the bright side, technologies have emerged that show promise and should allow for improved control, he said. Interventions and research highlighted by Dr. Marsden included a conditionally approved cattle vaccine, post-chill carcass decontamination, hydrostatic pressure treatment of trimmings, ultra-violet treatment and interventions during the slaughter process.

Although vaccines won’t totally eliminate E. coli O157:H7 in cattle, they may help to reduce the spike in incidence that has been observed during the summer months, Dr. Marsden said. They also allow for better control during the slaughter process. Vaccine plus excellent slaughter and post-slaughter controls may positively address the problem, he added.

As for ground-beef safety, Dr. Marsden addressed the effectiveness of irradiation as well as technologies for decontamination of beef trimmings prior to grinding, including ultra-violet light technology used in conjunction with chemical antimicrobials.

In concluding his presentation, Dr. Marsden said an integrated, multi-hurdle process for combating E. coli O157:H7 is an effective means for controlling the pathogen.

"The net effect of this integrated process is a major reduction in risk associated with E. coli O157:H7 in beef products," Dr. Marsden said.

The best solution is to produce beef carcasses that are virtually free of enteric contamination — this includes E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. In using a dairy analogy, the raw material for grinders, processors and purveyors should be "pasteurized" beef carcasses.

"That’s my vision; let’s hope it doesn’t take 10 years to get there," Dr. Marsden concluded.

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