Inside Meat & Poultry: Getting Science on Track
Randall D. Huffman, Ph.D., American Meat Institute Foundation
Alice L. Johnson, DVM, National Food Processors Association
William Brown, Ph.D., ABC Research Corp.
Scot M. Russell, Ph.D., University of Georgia
Food Safety Magazine: In your area of expertise, what are the top issues with regard to the current food safety, scientific, international trade and/or regulatory challenges faced by the meat and poultry industry today, and why?
William Brown: Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) implementation and pathogen control are the two areas that are most troublesome to the meat and poultry processors with whom we work on a daily basis. Regulatory HACCP is difficult for processors to fit into a process control program. Process control was established to have control points measured and actions taken on the processing line. Microbial monitoring is not appropriate to be used as a critical control point. An example of this is attempting to control Listeria monocytogenes on fully cooked meat and poultry products. Microbial counts are not available for one to five days; therefore, Listeria monocytogenes control cannot be monitored as the manufacturing process is taking place.
Scott Russell: In the poultry industry the main areas of concern right now are issues that occur in the field as the chickens are being hatched and raised, which have a direct impact on regulations in the plant. This includes fecal contamination in the processing plant and Salmonella, E. coli and ingesta contamination. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has zero tolerance for feces on the carcass. If any fecally contaminated carcasses get to the chiller in the processing plant then significant measures have to happen. One of the main problems related to this is that regulations place 100% of the responsibility on the processing plant, but there are a number of things that occur in the field that affect the processing and regulatory compliance, including the four types of contamination that I’ve just mentioned. For example, cross-contamination in the hatchery during the hatching process can directly influence the number of Salmonella-contaminated birds coming through the processing plant. The fact is that only very small decreases in Salmonella can be made at the processing plant. If the birds are coming into the processing plant highly contaminated due to cross-contamination during hatching or the grow-out phase, there’s only so much that the plant can do about it and yet all of the current regulation places the onus on the plant to deal with the issue completely.
As far as ingesta and feces contamination, it is the same situation. If problems occur in the field, such as overuse of certain kinds of antibiotics or the birds become diseased, then their intestines are going to be weak and when they go through the processing plant they will be torn and you will have feces all over the carcass and ingesta, which ultimately results in failures. And the plant gets all the regulations and yet there is nothing they can do about it. Another problem that occurs prior to the processing plant is the issue of feed withdrawal. The contracted grower has to go out in the middle of the night and take the birds off feed. If the birds are not off feed for a sufficient period of time, their intestines will be full of feces and you will have problems in the plant. Seasonal changes are another such issue. We see an increased number of USDA failures due to fecal contamination in the winter time. We don’t know exactly why. But the regulations put all of the onus on the plant as if the plant has total control of these types of variables. When there is cyclical variation in fecal or bacterial contamination going on due to weather, or when there are things in the field that occur due to unforeseen circumstances that will cause more contamination, it is difficult to understand why all the regulations are on the plant, which cannot control the weather nor the grower The poultry processors are doing everything the same as they’ve been doing when there was only 2% Salmonella contamination and no fecal. And yet the regulations are more stringent and plants are being shut down.
The government has talked about implementing HACCP all the way back to the field, but thus far it hasn’t happened. Until some of the responsibility is placed on the growers, these issues will remain of significant concern to poultry processors. Since processors have contracts with growers, the companies really don’t have that much control over how the grower manages the birds, except seeing at the plant end that the birds grow well and look healthy. But without some regulatory responsibility, the grower is not going to be responsible for implementing bacterial intervention strategies to try to help out the processing plant.
Another major area of interest to the poultry industry is the HACCP Inspection Models Program (HIMP) which was introduced by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). This program allows some plants, on a temporary basis, to operate HACCP by themselves and not be inspected. It is a trial to see if FSIS can do less inspection. The participating plants seem to like it really well, but there appears to be some tension between the plants and the inspectors in terms of implementing this HIMP program.
Currently, there are both research efforts and extension activities underway here at the University of Georgia to try to assist poultry plants in dealing with these challenges. These include development of more effective intervention strategies, such as ways to increase gut integrity, ways to manage the flock to reduce fecal or bacterial problems before the birds reach the plant, and ways to decrease cross-contamination in the hatchery and grow-out house.\
Alice Johnson: In talking about the meat and poultry industry, there are many issues that are considered top priority with regards to food safety. The meat and poultry industries are sincere in trying to obtain the best methods for handling these issues with currently available science. Scientific data gathering will continue to expand and serve to provide direction for the various challenges faced by the industry. Recognizing that each one of these challenges is unique with regard to specific products produced, research is providing the information needed to understand and to develop methods for their control. However, the major challenge for the industry may not be individual issues, so much as an overriding concern encompassing them all: how to mix science with public perception. All the science in the world can be tossed aside with one “sound bite,” swaying public emotion and influencing regulators, national and international consumers and the food industry itself. Products are being blocked from international trade due to unfounded scientific concerns. Regulations are being developed based on public concern, in some instances, sacrificing scarce resources that could be better spent focusing on true public health concerns.
With regard to the efforts underway to address this challenge, there are several key tools being used by the meat and poultry industry. The first and perhaps the most important is better use of the media. The American public is being bombarded with all types of information from all different sources. The meat and poultry industry must take advantage of all sources of media. When a consumer wants to find out more about bovine spongiform encepalophy (BSE) on the Internet, what keywords do they look up? “Mad Cow,” of course! The meat and poultry industry is working to use these tools in a manner in which information is provided in an easy to understand format.
I think a good example of moving toward creative media to get information to the public is through the Fight Bac campaign. This is a joint industry-government partnership that incorporates cartoon characters to illustrate food safety handling information.
Randall D. Huffman: Microbiological hazards continue to be the single most significant challenge facing our industry. From a technical perspective, pathogen elimination is challenging, if not impossible. While we have made enormous strides in reducing pathogens, we cannot eliminate every pathogen in every case without a final kill step in the process, such as cooking. For the foreseeable future, consumers will want to purchase many meat products in the traditional, raw form.
Complicating our efforts is an erroneous assumption by some groups that the presence of pathogens on meat and poultry is somehow the result of poor slaughtering or processing practices. Policies that approach the challenge of eliminating pathogens based on that assumption can do more harm than good because they will divert resources from areas that can truly enhance food safety.
I’ve seen many excellent companies with comprehensive and sophisticated food safety programs produce products that—despite every effort—test positive for a microbial pathogen. In some cases, these companies were devastated by recalls and negative publicity—even in the absence of illnesses. As a meat scientist, I share the historical view of the National Academy of Sciences, which as early as 1987 stated that pathogen standards and “zero tolerance” policies in and of themselves do not make food safe.
If you want to talk about making real progress, I think in the next few years we will see significant strides in the ability of producers to reduce pathogens in live animals, in new intervention strategies that reduce pathogens on carcasses during processing and in new ingredients that retard the growth of pathogens in processed products. All of these developments will help enhance food safety dramatically. But I think it is critical as we move forward with both food safety technology and food safety policy that we ask what impact our actions have on the public health, because that is what really matters—not what a test result alone can show.
Interestingly, BSE has become a larger and larger issue for the meat industry. Technically speaking, our risk of BSE in the U.S. is lower than it ever has been since the disease was first identified. This is because the U.S. government and industry took numerous actions soon after the first identification of the disease in the U.K. and have sequentially strengthened our firewalls. Despite this fact, the animal disease has devastated the British beef industry and approximately 100 people have been diagnosed with vCJD, a human disease that has been linked to BSE. As a result, our government continually scrutinizes our animal disease prevention, livestock production and meat processing systems so that we can continue to prevent the disease in the U.S. cattle herd.
While I feel more confident in the safety of U.S. meat than I ever have, the ongoing effort to minimize risk in the U.S. will continue to present challenges to the meat industry as policymakers and other groups seek changes that we may deem unnecessary given our B SE-free status. The fact is, the U.S. is not Europe and there are significant differences that must be recognized. We render products, raise animals and process meat in far different ways than they do in Britain. Our livestock populations and densities also are very different. And we have always been in the fortuitous position of preventing a disease we don’t have rather than trying to contain one we do have. Our policies must reflect these differences.
FSM: Recent government-driven initiatives focus heavily on food safety efforts regarding microbial contamination. For example, USDA FSIS’s new five-year strategic plan includes goals such as reducing by 50% the incidence of positive tests for Listeria on ready-to- eat meat and poultry products by 2005 and reducing Salmonella by changing the allowable level of contamination on boiler thickens (to drop from 20% to 7.5%), market hogs (to drop from 8.7% to 4%) and ground beef (drop from 7.5% to 4%).
And, in February, the agency published a proposed rule entitled, “Performance Standards for the Production of Processed Meat and Poultry Products,” in which the agency outlines food safety measures applicable to all ready-to-eat and all partially heat-treated meat and poultry products, as well as environmental testing requirements intended to reduce the incidence of Listeria monocytogenes in processed meat and poultry products.
Would the panelists comment on the concerns of and challenges faced by the meat and poultry industry with regard to these initiatives?
Brown: There are several reasons why Listeria has garnered heightened attention by regulators and industry. First, the death rate of people with listeriosis is as high as 25%, although it is rare in terms of associated incidents of foodborne disease, the percentage of fatalities is very high. Many of the pathogen’s essential characteristics also serve to make its presence in or on product an important food safety concern. For instance, Listeria grows at refrigeration temperatures, down to 40°F, posing a real problem for ready-to-eat meat and poultry processors, as well as other refrigerated food categories. Listeria is also more heat-resistant Salmonella or E. coli, about two-and-a- quarter times more heat-resistant than Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7 which means that any product that is undercooked has a possibility of Listeria contamination.
Listeria is also an environmental contaminant. For example, it can be brought into the plant on the feet of plant workers who live on farms or even enter the facility via airborne contamination from nearby sewage treatment plants. Listeria’s ability to stay in the plant for an extended period of time also adds to the problem. We know, for example, due to genetic testing, that a strain of Listeria found in one plant in the mid-1980s showed up again recently in a product produced by that same plant. In total, Listeria is a very difficult-to-control organism.
In terms of the government initiatives to reduce Listeria, I would say that the USDA is concerned with microbial standards in a way that makes it extremely difficult for industry to operate. Listeria is currently at the forefront of discussion, and as I’ve stated, is an important issue to be addressed by all involved in food safety and processing. However, the first problem with some of the Listeria-related agency initiatives is that there is no such thing as a zero tolerance. As long as we produce meat, poultry, vegetables and seafood, we’ll have pathogens in the product. I am concerned that we will waste too much time and effort trying to eliminate all pathogens from raw product. It just isn’t feasible. We are not able to completely eliminate organisms in the final product and therefore, a zero tolerance standard and final product testing mandates are not appropriate. I say this because a HACCP program is a process control program, which by its very nature is a program that aims at uncovering problems with the product and correcting them prior to shipping to the consumer.
In Listeria testing, for example, the results will be available on negatives 24 to 48 hours later, long after the product has gone through the process. On the final product testing discussed in the Listeria initiatives, it may take as long as five to seven days to get a confirmed positive. This time lag and the way in which we are trying to do the testing creates a real problem for the processor.
Another problem with testing for Listeria in a meat or poultry plant is the fact that if you find it in a fully cooked product, you must go through a recall. This creates a concern about finding Listeria and tracking its source. We try to talk plants into using microbial genetics techniques to find out where the Listeria is coming from so we can eliminate it from the plant, but the processors are quick to point out that the USDA recall penalty for finding it precludes them from wanting to do any additional testing. So finding a Listeria source and eliminating it in today’s regulatory climate becomes a real problem.
For all of these reasons, I think that processors are going to have a lot more trouble meeting the agency’s new strategic goals to reduce by half the number of positives for Listeria. The difficulty is that it can come from the environment, the raw product or from plant contamination, and there are probably even carriers in the workplace as cited in a European study of butchers identified as Listeria carriers. Even if we reduce the level of Listeria on the products, there is no guarantee that we are going to reduce the number of food poisoning cases that occur in the restaurants and homes. Cornell University researcher Martin Weidmann has done some really excellent work showing that all strains of Listeria are not pathogenic. Under the current regulatory program, however, the presence of Listeria monocytogenes forces the recall regardless of whether it is a virulent strain or a nonvirulent strain.
If our goal is to reduce the incidence of food poisoning, we need to concentrate on another area of our food system; in particular, focus more on the restaurants than on the food processors. I say this because approximately 50% to 80% of all food poisoning cases are of unknown origin, and of the remaining cases, 50% are caused by viral agents.
If you look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) record, you find that approximately 60% of the food poisoning cases occur from restaurant-prepared food, 30% to 32% occur from food prepared in the home, and less than 10% can be traced back to the processing plant.
I think if we want to make some real inroads in reducing foodborne illnesses, we need to look at the cause of the food poisoning and concentrate more on the food service area. Proper education and training of food service employees should be our number one goal.
Russell: The creation of new laws and requirements doesn’t somehow magically cause bacteria to die or fall off of chicken. Just because you lower the amount allowable doesn’t mean it is going to occur. All that this does is increase the number of plants that are out of compliance. The government has reported that by implementing HACCP the number of Salmonella-positive carcasses has been reduced by about half. In actuality, this reduction is probably more due to the way carcasses are sampled with more diluent, and so, in reality, the numbers have probably not changed very much. If you look back at the historical data, even in the 1950s, you’ll see that the amount of Salmonella on chicken has not changed appreciably in the last few decades. So, just by lowering the allowable level of Salmonella to 7.5% as a requirement is not going to help anything.
Of course, this is a touchy issue for the poultry industry. The government really believes that the institution of HACCP has reduced the number of contaminated carcasses. But it has been done at a very high cost, and the question is, is it worth what is happening to the environment, to the processing plants, to the price of chicken and the amount of effort and expense that the companies are having to put forth to get it down another couple of percent? For example, what is the difference between the 9-10% the regulators are reporting now and 7.5%? Or put another way, has foodborne illness as a result of Salmonella contamination from chicken decreased as a result of implementation of HACCP? If it hasn’t, then why are we spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to make it happen? These are the tough questions that people need to ask.
The fact is that when a plant gets shut down due to fecal failures or Salmonella failures, it is a major issue. You’ve got to do something with the many, many live animals in process. I’ve watched 42,000 birds in trucks in 90°F heat, waiting and ready to be processed, be put on hold for a plant shutdown. What do you do? You’ve got to clean out two entire chicken houses, put new water, feed and litter in, and put those birds in the chicken houses until you can get the problem squared away. And then you’ve got six-and-a-half weeks worth of chickens backed up, all at various stages of growth and ready to be processed. Four hundred chicken houses feed one chicken plant, and each chicken house contains 25,000 birds. If the regulator finds one speck of feces on a bird and shuts the plant down, it not only costs the company probably $500,000 a day, but is a major animal welfare issue. So we’ve got to think carefully about what these reduction numbers really mean.
Also, the poultry industry has experienced a skyrocketing of Listeria failures. Again, this is due to regulation, not necessarily because Listeria has increased. What you risk when these tolerances are set is that the companies do not want to test, because the more they test, the more they find, and the more they find, the more trouble they get into.
Johnson: FSIS has announced in its new five-year strategic plan, the agency’s goal to reduce Salmonella in certain raw products. The reduction of pathogens in raw products is a desirable goal for both industry and the agency. FSIS data indicates that the Salmonella numbers have dropped over the past few years. Industry has worked through various interventions to accomplish this type of reduction. However, it is very important to keep in mind that animals carry pathogens and that raw products produced from these animals will not be consumed without a process that kills the pathogen. The industry will continue to work through appropriate process steps and interventions to further reduce pathogens on raw products, but at some point, there will be a point of diminished return.
While continuing to accomplish pathogen reduction on raw products, industry and agency focus must be on the relative risk certain foods have to public health. Raw products that will undergo a thermal process before consumption provide a much lower risk to public health than ready-to-eat products. This brings in the discussion on the FSIS proposed rule on Performance Standards for Production of Processed Meat and Poultry Products published February 27 2001. This proposed rule for processed meat and poultry products is massive in scope and will have a very significant impact on the production of ready-to-eat products. As with any proposed regulation, it must be reviewed to determine whether or not it will enhance food safety. The RTE proposal provides some provisions that appear to present a significant burden with little or no likelihood of positive impact on public health. Some of the provisions might even be considered to lessen the public health protection and misdirect agency resources. It appears that in developing this proposal, FSIS totally ignored the finding of the interagency Listeria monocytogenes risk assessment, in that products that don’t support the growth of pathogens, identified as low risk, are treated the same as those given a high risk ranking. FSIS resources are not allocated in the most efficient and effective manner with regards to public health concerns. In addition, Listeria testing requirements may have a negative impact on public health in that they serve as a disincentive to aggressive testing programs. In saying this, it is important to recognize that this is a proposed rule and credit is to be given to FSIS for the open manner in which the agency has solicited public comment. The technical meeting held in May was excellent! Comments on the proposal are due in September. I am sure the agency will receive many substantive comments that will allow for changes to be made if there is a need for further rulemaking.
Huffman: The meat and poultry industry benefits by selling food that is as safe as it possibly can be. We support the government’s efforts to reduce pathogens. The industry shares this goal and believes it is laudable. No one is more committed to reducing pathogens than the people who process and sell U.S. meat and poultry products; it’s just good business.
Our chief concern is that government and industry work together as a team achieve results that enhance public health. For too long, we’ve played a game of “gotcha” in which the government focuses on trying to find problems—like pathogens on products. But we need to research our way out of pathogen challenges—not write rules that are unachievable, like zero tolerance for E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef While we’ve learned in many ways to live with the E. coli rule, the fact is, it is comparable to the government issuing a new regulation prohibiting car tires from becoming flat. Writing a new rule will not achieve that goal. But investing in research, technology and education of the workforce can at least bring tire makers closer to perfection.
The same goes for the meat industry. We certainly support pathogen reduction efforts. But pathogen performance standards are not the cause of reduced pathogens on meat products. What reduces pathogen on products is the use of better technology and the effort and hard work of those employees in the industry charged with producing safe products, day in and day out. Regarding the proposed RTE rule, AMI will be providing extensive comments on the proposed rule in the hope that we can ensure that it is grounded in risk-based science, is achievable, and that it ultimately will benefit the public health.
FSM: In your opinion, what are some of the most significant analytical, testing, technological and/or intervention advances that have been made in the meat and poultry industry in terms of microbiological, chemical or physical hazards?
Brown: One such advance can be seen in the antimicrobials that are used in the slaughtering of cattle and in the processing of poultry. There are a couple of compounds in particular that have been used successfully. For example, sodium chlorite reduces incidence of pathogens on both beef cattle and poultry carcasses, and trisodium phosphate has been used to reduce pathogens on beef and poultry carcasses. Other intervention strategies that have been used successfully are steam pasteurization (hot water pasteurization) and a number of organic acids approved as carcass washes to reduce pathogens.
Even with the successful use of intervention and pathogen reduction strategies, I think the overall incidence of food poisoning is probably staying at approximately the same level. The 1999 CDC data shows E. coli O157:H7 with 73,000 cases, 61 deaths; Salmonella with 1,412,000 cases, 582 deaths; Campylobacter with 2,453,000 cases, 124 deaths; and Listeria monocytogenes had a much lower number of cases, 2,518, but a higher number of deaths, 504. It appears that we are doing a good job of reducing the pathogens on beef; pork and chicken, but it isn’t following through with a huge reduction in food poisoning cases. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that the same microorganisms showing up in clinical isolates from hospitals.
Microbiology is an extremely complex issue, and the microbe will find a way to get around any intervention that we put in place. Microorganisms are adaptable and the mutation rate of pathogens is much higher than the mutation rate of most other microorganisms. This means that when we try to eliminate the pathogenic microorganisms by putting up hurdles, they find a way to go around the barrier. Having said this, our testing and analytical methods are improving all the time. Not too many years ago, for example, food service operators were willing to accept a 750,000 or one million total count per gram on ground beef as standard. Today, most beef processors are producing product with less than 10,000 total count per gram.
The development of rapid microbiological methods has enhanced detection and confirmation efforts in the meat and poultry industry. From our own laboratory work, we routinely run traditional organisms of concern: Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. The level of the latter is much higher than the other pathogens on meat and poultry, which jibes with the 1999 CDC data that reports that Campylobacter is associated with more food poisoning cases than Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes combined. The development of methods for Campylobacter, for example, provides a good example of the usefulness of these quicker tests. Twenty years ago, it probably would have required 20 to 30 days to get a positive result, because of the time- consuming methodology involved. Today, we have rapid methods using the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA technology) and are able to get negatives on most of the pathogens within one or two days, depending on the amount of time required for enrichment. Of course, we still have to use the methods provided in the FDA Bacteriological Analytical Manual (BAM) and USDA Microbiology Guidebook in order to confirm. Recently, there have been some developments in the confirmation process that promise to make the time-to- result much shorter, hut currently these are not approved by the regulatory agencies. However, some of these rapid confirmation methods have been tested in the commercial laboratories and found to be acceptable. I envision that in another year or two we will be able to get faster results.
We also need to concentrate our efforts on environmental monitoring. Many technological advances have helped industry to more effectively track such environmental contaminants as Listeria. Microbial genetics techniques by Dr. Samadapour at Washington State University, DL Benson at Nebraska and DL Weidmann at Cornell University have given use the tools to determine where the pathogen is coming from and also whether a particular organism is the cause of illness.
Again, intervention strategies will be more effective if we begin all the way back at the farm, including feeding probiotics to livestock to eliminate pathogens from the animal’s gut or utilize vaccines. The source of the problem is the farm, and I think that if you can better control or eliminate the organisms at that source, you will reduce the pressure on the processing plant, food service operator and at-home cook.
Russell: There has been some good advances in in-plant intervention strategies for poultry in terms of intervening in microbiological hazards. For example, we’re working on an electrostatic spraying system that charges sanitizers as they go out the nozzle. By doing that, it allows for total coating of a product or surface. We can install these automatic electrostatic sprayers in a room and disinfect the entire room with a very small amount of sanitizer which gets into every crack and crevice, because the sanitizer is negatively charged and the surfaces in the room are positively charged. The natural positive charge on a carcass or an equipment surface is enough to result in a perfect coat. If you spray dye, you can see that it coats everything, under the surfaces, in between cracks, absolutely perfectly, and this should go a long way to both disinfecting equipment and rooms in the plant and hopefully, disinfect carcasses. We’ve got electrostatic spraying systems currently installed in hatching cabinets that are working really well, as well as one in a cabinet for treating carcasses, which we’re getting ready to install in a processing plant. This system helps to reduce by approximately half the amount of sanitizer used because it coats so much better.
We are also working on a sanitizer that is totally nontoxic; in fact, we can drink it. It is called “microwater,” and is comprised of salt water that has been split by electrolysis. We end up with two streams, an alkaline stream of around pH 11, which is good for cleaning, and an acid stream of around pH 2.5, in which there are small amounts of chlorine, ions, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine dioxide and ozone. Those four oxidizing chemicals in low concentrations—so low that you don’t notice them other than a fruity taste—provide good sanitation quality.
I get many calls, almost daily, from poultry plants regarding fecal failure. As a result, I’ve had to develop instruments that have never existed before to try to measure some of the areas where the plant is having problems. In other words, the devices can provide answers as to whether the problem is with the processing equipment, or field-based contamination, or whether it is based in the plant. For example, I’ve developed a gas cylinder that has a regulator and meter in which I can place chicken guts to test gut strength. If it blows up in two seconds or 10 seconds at a certain psi then I know the guts are a certain strength and can provide recommendations as to what the problem is and how to address it.
As far as testing and analytical procedures go, I would say that there have been some advances, but developments in this area need to be focused. Of course, the microbiological testing procedures have been an area of major advance with the new rapid ELISA strips and diagnostic test kits in terms of portability. The fact that the poultry processor can test in the field, in the chicken house or hatchery, without operating a big, expensive laboratory, and get rapid results is a major plus. But, this comes at a price: cross- reactivity, because many of these products do cross-react with nonpathogenic bacteria.
In poultry, the main characteristics we look for in a test is rapidity, ease-of-use by unskilled labor, portability and accuracy of result. So far, such tests offer the first three; accuracy of the tests must still be addressed
The next frontier in applied food safety science, however, is not testing methods, because we’ve made incredible advances in the area of rapid and automated microbiological analytical technologies to detect bacteria and these have assisted industry very well. Our testing methods are significantly limited by our sampling methods. We’ve reached an asymptote; in other words, we are to the point now that I don’t think we can make big advances in testing without advancing in terms of sampling. Here’s an example, I know a person who got an $80,000 grant to do detection of Salmonella on chicken rinses using a biosensor, which is a good idea. The problem is that you’ve got to pass the sample through a column the width of a human hair, and when asked how he was going to get chicken rinse through that small of a column, he didn’t have any idea. It doesn’t matter how good you are at detecting something if you can’t get your sample in a form to run through that detection device. We must breach the problems we have with sampling.
Johnson: In talking about raw products, the advancement of various technologies have helped the meat and poultry industry reduce the microbiological numbers recorded by FSIS over the past few years. Work done at the plant range from steam vacuum, to antimicrobial rinses, to the use of irradiation. Advances are also being applied at the farm level to reduce pathogens on animals entering a slaughter facility, i.e. litter treatments, vaccines and probiotics. On the RTE products, much work has been done on post-processing heat treatment cabinets, the application of high-pressure systems, ingredients used during formulation and microbial barriers for packaging materials. It is anticipated that the industry petition for the use of irradiation of ready-to- eat products will be approved by the federal agencies in the near future, as well.
Huffman: The industry has made significant strides in last several years regarding the reduction of pathogens on both raw meat and poultry as well as ready-to-eat products. Those interventions are different depending upon the types of processes that are employed, but essentially they are all intended to reduce the microbial load on those products as early in the production process as possible. Examples include increasing emphasis on the use of preharvest intervention technologies— such as probiotics and dietary ingredients in feed—that have an effect on the pathogen load and/or can reduce pathogens on live animals coming into the plant; intervention technologies used on the slaughter floor that can reduce the level of microorganisms on carcasses; and the use of various other intervention steps to reduce the likelihood that ready- to-eat products contain pathogens, such as post-packaging pasteurization and the inclusion of ingredients that will prevent microbial growth during storage of RTE products.
Analytical methods continue to improve all the time. The industry has seen many new rapid methods become available with more specificity and greater speed. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) tests have become commonplace and molecular based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods are gaining popularity. Unfortunately, the development of real-time microbiological methods is still in the future.
FSM: While validation and verification of food safety measures are significant drivers with regard to testing and analytical measures, quality assurance is also important to the meat and poultry industry and to its consumers. Are there any important scientific developments in terms of quality measurements?
Brown: One of the quality assurance tools that has proved useful is the feeding of antioxidants (vitamin E) to beef cattle, to maintain the color of the end product in the retail display case. In addition, the case-ready packaging of beef and pork has moved forward dramatically in the last few years because the packaging industry has come up with modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) using high oxygen levels and barrier films. Low oxygen tray overwrap master pouches with peelable films, where you can peel off one layer and expose the next layer to the retail display case lights, causing the product to appear in a bright red color, is another packaging advance. There have been some good studies conducted at the university level with regard to tenderness measurements, another quality concern of interest to the industry.
Russell: Quality assurance is clearly important in our field, and yes, there have been some advances in quality measurements of interest to the poultry industry. One is gut integrity, the lack of which leads directly to fecal contamination, which is actually more of a quality issue than a safety issue, since if feces get on the outside of a carcass it doesn’t influence the bacterial numbers at all. Gut strength has to do more with the quality of the bird. The environment of the bird and the stress that’s placed on the bird will have direct and significant impact on the quality of the meat. For example, if birds are stressed out right before slaughter, they start to burn glycogen in their muscles. And if that happens, the birds have no glycogen in their muscles to turn into lactic acid and the pH of meat will stay high causing the breast meat to spoil much faster than if the pH were low like it is supposed to be.
Stressing the bird also causes a tenderness and toughness issue, because stress will cause changes in the bird’s biochemical process. Let me give you an example:
We went into a chicken plant and collected tons of chicken breast filets, some that were really light in color, some that were dark in color, and we allowed them to spoil. In some cases, the dark-colored breast filets spoiled twice as fast as the light-colored breast filets. A difference of spoiling in seven days versus 14 days is a significant quality problem. What we discovered is that dark-colored meat is due to the level of stress in the bird. Dr. Fletcher did this research in our lab here, finding that a bird stressed prior to slaughter will develop much darker meat than an unstressed bird. It may be that the processors need to test color of the breast meat and then separate product based on color because one dark breast filet can spoil a whole package of nice, light breast filets. Although consumers won’t tell you that they see that, subconsciously they do perceive the dark-colored meat in a package and they will not choose it.
Johnson: Of course, with the attention given to food safety through process controls and sanitation in a meat and poultry facility, improvements are usually noted in the quality of product as well. In raw products, antimicrobial rinses have been shown to improve shelf-life along with packaging materials that have micro-barriers. Ready-to-eat products are seeing advances in technologies, many of which serve to prevent or eliminate pathogens as well as to improve the quality of the product.
Huffman: The quality of the products is a key factor in a plant’s operations. As an industry, we must never lose sight of the fact that producing high quality products that meet consumer expectations is of paramount importance. Many innovative and useful food safety interventions have been shown, at some level of application, to have deleterious effects on product quality. The ability of companies to maximize product safety while maintaining product quality will continue to be important.
This is especially so as we move more and more into producing case-ready, fresh products, where maintenance of both appearance and palatability of the product is of concern, and at the same time, microbial safety is expected. That area will continue to evolve. Extension of shelf life, of both raw products and some RTE products, continues to be an area of focus for the meat and poultry industry, and the quality measurements related to this aim will play an important role.
FSM: What food safety and QA/QC challenges are on the horizon for the industry in the near future? How can the industry prepare for these challenges? Are you aware of any current research or industry initiatives being conducted to address these challenges?
Brown: ABC Research has developed an ELISA test using Dr. Glenn Schmidt’s research at Colorado State University to determine central nervous system tissue in beef products. This was in response to a need from the Advanced Meat Recovery plants. This is a quality assurance technique to eliminate spinal cord, brain, retina, etc., that could carry prion proteins associated with Mad Cow Disease. Food safety is a continually changing area of activity in the food industry, it’s a moving target. As our methods improve for measuring microorganisms, we are likely to find more problems. The goal really becomes getting the scientific work done that will allow us to meet these challenges in the future. One of the problems we face in the meat and poultry industry is that we are seriously short on technical talent. Back when I was involved with John Morrell & Co., we had 125 scientific professionals on staff, Armour Food Co. had another 300, and Swift Co. had 500, and so on. Today, we just don’t have the scientific talent and the kind of scientific research that was being done in the 1950s and 1960s is not currently being done by meat and poultry companies. The industry needs more talent and needs to do more research.
One area in which I would like to see improve is in the area of genetic testing, specifically to find out what strains of organisms will really cause food poisoning and where these organisms are coming from to be better able to control them in the processing plant. Determining a minimum infective dose for the common pathogens and eventually a tolerance should be an industry goal. All of this coupled with some good research on the farms to identify how to control pathogens before they get to the plant should offer us some good possibilities for better food safety in the future.
Russell: The biggest food safety challenges for the poultry industry in the near future can be summed up in two words:
Listeria and Campylobacter. Of course, Listeria is a serious issue, in particular for ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, since detection of these bacteria appears to be on the rise. Campylobacter is the number one foodborne pathogen and chicken has been identified as a primary source. Because of this, the poultry industry is going to be under the gun to fix the Campylobacter problem, likely under a government mandate. When the regulation comes, then what? None of our labs are set up to test for it, it is not an easy bacterium to test for, and we’re going to have to hire much more highly trained people and invest in much more expensive equipment to detect it.
Ultimately, the government has got to have more of a “we will work with you” attitude toward these problems, rather than legislating the bacteria off of the chicken. It is much better if the agencies offer programs that will help industry to reduce and control foodborne pathogens. The industry and the government need to look at how to reduce numbers and not just incidences, because incidence and prevalence do not tell us very much.
Johnson: The meat and poultry industry must be prepared for challenges that may or may not be directly related to their product. BSE continues to be a major concern for most consumers. There is confusion in the public mind over the difference between BSE and foot and mouth disease. Detection of either disease in the animal population of the U.S. would reduce consumer confidence in the meat supply. This would also be the case in the event a vCJD case is discovered in the U.S., regardless of origin of the disease. Many groups are working to prepare for the media crisis this might result if human or animal illness is reported in the U.S. related to BSE. Research continues on the prions and transmission of the disease-causing agent.
Allergens are another concern for meat and poultry products. While research continues, industry has worked to try to keep consumers informed. NFPA put together labeling guidelines for the food industry with regards to allergens. These include guidance on “common sense” labeling and identifying ingredients in terms more familiar to the consumer than those used in the past.
The meat and poultry industries continue to work toward production of a safe, quality product that is affordable for the consumer. To continue to market and sell products, companies must explore technologies and work to conduct and fund research on the many challenges present today and those yet unknown for the future. The manner in which the industries communicate to the consumer on science and risk will play a major rule in the acceptance of the technologies and challenges present day and future.
Huffman: The meat and poultry industry continually faces new challenges. Most recently, the focus on animal disease prevention has been in the forefront, particularly as it relates to BSE in cattle and hoof-and-mouth disease in various livestock populations. These areas have received more attention in recent years and will continue to receive more attention in the future because they can have a very significant economic impact on the industry, both from the animal production and food processing point of view but also in the way consumers view the safety of our products.
New pathogens will continue to be identified as they have been over the last decades, and as those new pathogens are better understood and control measures devised, these will receive increasing attention from the industry, as well.
I will also add that the issue of biotechnology is one that will also play an increasing role in how products are produced and marketed. The technology has great potential and there is a tremendous education effort that is needed in order to educate the public about the benefits of biotechnology in a variety of areas.
AMIF funded five new research projects in the first half of 2001, two dealing with preventing and treating E. coli O157:H7 in live animals and three dealing with the elimination of foodborne pathogens in processing. In one of these studies, Dr. Mindy Brashears of Texas Tech University aims to determine the effectiveness of feeding cattle probiotic lactic acid bacteria as a daily feed supplement. Researchers will monitor the effects of the substances in the shedding of the pathogen by animals, contamination of the carcasses during slaughter and the effects on body weight gain and feed intake.
A second study, which will be performed at Washington State University by Dr. Dale Hanock, will examine whether a bacteriophage product specifically targeted for E. coli O157:H7 will reduce the probability of infection or the amount of the pathogen in fecal shedding in infected cattle.
The three other newly funded AMIF studies deal with Listeria monocytogenes, two of which focus on the use of antimicrobials in ready-to-eat meats. A study by Dr. jimmy Keeton, Texas A&M University, will focus on the antimicrobial effects of surface treatments and ingredients on cured RTE products, specifically GRAS preservatives such as potassium lactate and Safe2OTMHOH + Lactic Acid (SWLA) as ingredients for preserving quality and extending shelf life of packaged, cured, ready-to-eat frankfurters.
A second study by Dr. Jack Losso and Dr. Kenneth McMillan at Louisiana State University will determine the antimicrobial effectiveness of different levels of protamine, a protein that confers antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi and molds, on various pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes.
In addition, Dr. Ellin Doyle of the University of Wisconsin has been funded to conduct an extensive literature review relating to Clostridium botulinium, C. perfringens, heat-injured cells and other foodborne pathogens on heat-treated ready- to-eat meat and poultry products during cooling.
William Brown, Ph.D., ARC Research Corp.’s Chief Executive Officer, responsible for food chemistry, product development, applied biotechnology, food microbiology and research, ABC Research Corp., is a Gainesville, FL-based company providing technical services to the food industry, ranging from chemistry and microbiology laboratory analyses and HACCP inspection services, to product/process research and regulatory liaison services. During his more than 40 years of experience in the food industry, Brown has also held positions as vice president research at John Morrell & Co., Ottumwa, IA, and an instructor at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC. Among his many professional affiliations, Brown served on the USDA National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Food, is executive director of the Southeastern Meat Association, and is a past member of the Technical Advisory Committee for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. He is a past chairman of the National Research Council Committee on Radiation Preservation of Foods and a past member of the USDA Meat and Poultry Inspection Advisory Committee.
Scott M. Russell, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Poultry Science at the University of Georgia, Athens, GA., where he has conducted research and provided extension services to the poultry industry for the past seven years. His main areas of interest are developing rapid and automated methods for identifying and enumerating pathogenic and spoilage bacteria from foods of animal origin, and identifying methods for eliminating pathogenic and spoilage organisms from poultry during rearing and processing. Russell’s previous experience in the poultry industry at GoldKist and Wayne Farms included positions as microbiologist, quality control manager and production manager.
Randall D. Huffman, Ph.D., is Vice President, Scientific Affairs, with the American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to research, education and information to benefit the meat and poultry industry. Huffman manages AMIF’s food safety research agenda, which is dedicated to reducing E. coli 0157:H7 on beef products and Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat meat products. Prior to joining AMIF, Huffman was director of technical services at Koch Industries, Inc., in Wichita, KS, where he managed food safety issues and HACCP implementation for Koch Beef Co. He also assisted in Koch’s fully cooked meat business and its first branded product line. Earlier in his career, he served as vice president of technical services at Fairbank Farms in Ashville, NY. There, he developed the technical and food safety components of the company’s case-ready beef and pork program. Huff man was also responsible for food safety and quality control programs and was a key liaison to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is a member of the American Meat Science Association and the Institute of Food Technologists.
Alice L. Johnson, DVM, is Vice President of Food Safety Programs with the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), where she directs the association’s food safety activities related to food inspections, HACCP and crisis management. Most recently, Johnson held the position of vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs with the National Turkey Federation (NTF), where she directed the implementation of new government and industry initiatives such as the FSIS Pathogen Reduction/HACCP and the NTF Environmental Guidelines. Prior to joining NTF, she was director of scientific and technical affairs at the American Meat Institute, where she was responsible for implementing the USDA Pathogen Reduction/HACCP food safety final rule. Johnson’s experience also includes an 11-year tenure at USDA, where she served as a member of the HACCP Special Team, developing the food safety concept for use in the meat and poultry industry.
Panel Details Safety Assurances on Sodium Nitrite Use
Several new scientific developments have affirmed the safety of sodium nitrite as a curing ingredient—and its essential role in protecting the public health—according to panel of food safety experts who spoke during the 1FT Annual Meeting June 26 in New Orleans. LA.
A comprehensive study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) completed in 2000 produced no meaningful
evidence that nitrite causes cancer in laboratory rats and mice, according to Ernest E. McConnell, DVM, MS. Pathology, former head of NTP’s Research and Testing Division. NTP’s study results were reviewed and voted upon by a panel of nine expert toxicologists and pathologists in a public meeting last year.
Specifically, the subcommittee found the lifetime feeding study showed no evidence of carcinogenicity in male and female rats, no evidence in male mice and equivocal evidence (a classification treated as Insufficient evidence”) in female mice.
According to McConnell, not only did sodium nitrite fail to produce clear evidence of cancer, it actually showed very strong protective effects against cancer and reduced tumor incidence in rodents fed the highest doses. The most striking effect was nitrite’s statistically significant ability to prevent leukemia, which some epidemiologists had earlier suggested was associated with sodium nitrite.
Also during the discussion, toxicologist James R. Coughlin, Ph.D., detailed the State of California’s decision in 2000 not to list sodium nitrite as a developmental toxicant under the state’s Proposition 65 law.
Under Proposition 65, substances that can be shown to cause cancer, reproductive harm or developmental toxicity must bear consumer and workplace warnings. California’s Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Committee (DART) analyzed 99 studies that had been done on sodium nitrite. The DART panel, comprised of toxicologists and epidemiologists, voted not to list nitrite as a developmental toxicant.
Coughlin said the decision not to list nitrite is extremely significant because hundreds of other chemicals have been listed under the California rule.
Cured Meats Minor Source of Nitrite
Douglas Archer, Ph.D., former head of the University of Florida’s Food Science department and a former US. Food and Drug Administration (OA) official, detailed the public health benefits of nitrite, According to Archer, before the use of nitrite, sausage and botulism shared quite a history, with the disease getting its name from botulus,” the Latin word for sausage.
From 1899 on, seven outbreaks and nine deaths were associated with underprocessing or gross temperature abuse of cured meats prior to the use of nitrite. Since the meat industry began routinely using nitrite in cured meats in the mid-20th century, no cases of botulism have been associated with cured meat products.
Archer also pointed out that cured meats are a relatively minor source of nitrite. Ninety-three percent of humat1nitrite intake comes from nitrate-containing Vegetables like spinach (nitrate is converted to nitrite in the mouth) and from the body’s own processes. Because nitrite helps prevent botulism and kills pathogenic bacteria, scientists speculate that the body manufactures nitrite as part of its own “defense mechanisms.” In fact, new research is shedding significant light on the importance of nitrite to human health.
Communications with Consumers Key
American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF) Vice President of Public Affairs Janet Riley said that many consumers hold long-standing concerns about nitrite because of repeated reporting suggesting that cured meats containing nitrite are harmful.
AMIF consumer research done in 2000 showed that many consumers continue to hold strong concerns about nitrite. In a consumer poll done by Wirthlin for AMIF, consumers were asked if they had read, seen or heard anything about the need to restrict children’s intake of a variety of foods. Thirty-two percent Said they should limit children’s consumption of nitrite-containing cured meats. In fact, consumers expressed more concern about nitrite than about genetically modified foods, which have experienced substantial negative publicity.
When asked what they had heard about the possible effects of nitrite in foods for pregnant women, 39 percent said they had heard that these foods could harm the fetus.
Riley said that overcoming long-standing fears requires a communications program that is targeted, repetitive and positive and that speaks to consumers in relevant terms via trusted sources. She said the panel discussion at the IFT meeting was an “excellent way to influence influenfials because scientists are among the most trusted sources of information.”