AMIF’s Food Safety Initiative: Progress and Possibilities
By A roundtable discussion
This fall, the American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF) released a timely summary of its five-year Food Safety Initiative research and educational outreach program. In its report, “Progress and Possibilities,” AMIF details the accomplishments and ongoing efforts of industry and academia to enhance meat and poultry safety, including the funding of intensive research, applied technology and consumer education in the areas of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products, sodium nitrite safety, and more. Many of these research findings have been translated into applicable food safety strategies and technologies used in meat and poultry plants throughout the nation.
AMIF is a non-profit research, education and information foundation established and funded by AMI to study the ways the meat and poultry industry can produce better, safer products and operate more efficiently (www.amif.org).
Food Safety Magazine spent some time with Randall Huffman, Ph.D., AMIF Vice President of Scientific Affairs, and AMIF Research Advisory Committee members—Phil Minerich, Ph.D., Hormel Foods; Martin Weidmann, Ph.D., Cornell University; Dean Danilson, Tyson Foods; Margaret Hardin, Ph.D., Boar’s Head Provision Co.; and Collette Schultz Kayser, Premium Standard Farms—to find out more about the Foundation’s success so far in addressing current food safety challenges and its next steps in addressing emerging industry issues.
Randall Huffman, Ph.D. is Vice President of Scientific Affairs for the American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF). He joined AMI in January 2000. Huffman manages the AMI Foundation’s food safety research agenda, assists members in improving food safety and quality and serves as the liaison between AMI and various scientific organizations. Prior to joining AMIF, Huffman was director of technical services for three years at Koch Industries, Inc., in Wichita, KS, where he had responsibilities for product development and food safety with the Koch Beef Co. Earlier in his career, he served as vice president of technical services at Fairbank Farms in Ashville, N.Y.
Phillip L. Minerich, Ph.D., is Vice President, Research and Development with Hormel Foods, where he oversees product development, regulatory compliance and food safety. Minerich, who succeeded Dr. Forrest D. Dryden upon his retirement, has been with the multinational manufacturer and marketer of consumer-branded food and meat products for 29 years, most recently in the position of director, product and process development and packaging with the research and development division of Hormel Foods. Minerich’s expertise includes food technology, packaging and the development and application of food safety intervention technologies and systems.
Margaret Hardin, Ph.D., is Director of Quality Assurance and Food Safety with Boar’s Head Provisions Co., the nationally known ready-to-eat meat and cheese processor serving the delicatessen and retail markets. Previously, Hardin held positions as Director of Food Safety at Smithfield Packing Co., Sara Lee Foods and the National Pork Producers Council, and as a research scientist and HACCP instructor with the National Food Processors Association in Washington, DC. Her efforts have been directed in areas of food safety, research, HACCP, and sanitation to protect the public health and assure the microbiological quality and safety of food.
Dr. Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Food Science, Cornell University, is a world-recognized scholar, researcher and expert on critical food safety issues affecting the dairy/animal industry. Wiedmann addresses farm-to-fork food safety issues with a diverse educational background in animal science, food science, and veterinary medicine. His program applies modern molecular technologies to address many microbiological challenges important to the meat, poultry, seafood and dairy industries. His work with Listeria monocytogenes is internationally recognized and has significantly contributed to improving our understanding of the transmission of this organism along the food chain.
Dean Danilson, Ph.D., is Vice President, Quality Assurance & Food Safety with Tyson Foods, the largest provider of beef, pork and chicken products worldwide. He is responsible for the Tyson Foods “Retail” Meat & Poultry Quality Assurance & Food Safety programs, which apply to over 50 slaughter, fabrication and further processing facilities, and for developing, implementing and sustaining QA/QC, HACCP/SSOP & GMP/SOP programs that involve food safety, product quality and product specifications. He also oversees the Product R&D & Meat Engineering for IBP Fresh Meat division, managing new product development and process improvement applications. During his 20-year career, Danielson has also has worked for the Granada Beef Co. and as an assistant professor at Auburn University.
Collette Schultz Kaster is Vice President of Food Safety and Technical Services at Premium Standard Farms, one of the largest vertically integrated providers of pork products in the U.S., producing consistent, high-quality pork products for the retail, wholesale, foodservice, further processor and export markets. She is responsible for food safety, regulatory affairs, quality assurance, product development and pre- and post-harvest research.
Food Safety Magazine: In the past five years, AMIF’s Food Safety Initiative (FSI) has focused a great deal on supporting research on methods and technologies for reducing and ultimately eliminating E. coli O157:H7 on fresh beef products and Listeria monocytogenes on RTE products. In your opinion, what are some of the key research findings in these two challenge areas and have any of these findings been translated into practical applications that advance food safety best practices in meat and poultry operations?
Dr. Randall Huffman, AMIF: In terms of reducing and eliminating E. coli O157:H7, some of the pre-harvest research has yielded promising results that may assist in reducing the pathogen at its source. The cattle feeding industry has expressed a willingness to adopt technologies that are proven effective. The research challenge is to validate the effectiveness of some of these promising techniques. One method that has received significant study and some commercial acceptance is the use of direct-fed microbials that have been shown in controlled studies to reduce the prevalence of cattle testing positive for E. coli O157 at slaughter. Studies that seek ways to reduce E. coli O157 in drinking water and prevent transmission from animal to animal through common water sources appear promising in the lab setting, but must be field tested to determine practicality. AMIF has also funded research to improve our understanding of optimal pathogen sampling protocols and validated laboratory methods for E. coli O157 testing. AMIF, in cooperation with the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, also funded proof-of-concept research that demonstrates that very low-dose, low-penetration electron beam treatment can effectively and dramatically reduce pathogens on the carcass surface.
In terms of Listeria monocytogenes control, the University of Georgia’s research into using competitive exclusion organisms in the drain to out-compete Listeria in this critical environmental niche looks very promising, and a major commercial sanitation supplier has expressed interest in taking this technology from the laboratory into a real-world setting. AMIF has also focused a significant amount of research funds at almost a dozen separate institutions to study a wide variety of compounds that may either destroy Listeria or prevent Listeria growth during shelf life. Several of these ingredients, such as a combination of lactate and diacetate have gained wide industry adoption in cured RTE meat products.
Dr. Phil Minerich, Hormel Foods: The AMIF research has provided industry with several excellent research initiatives providing sound guidance on several technologies for controlling or eliminating Listeria monocytogenes in the processing environment and reducing the risk of post-lethality contamination for RTE products. I believe industry has benefited from key AMIF-funded studies evaluating new food safety interventions and technologies evaluating the effectiveness and commercial application for different antimicrobial agents, high pressure pasteurization and hot water pasteurization.
Dr. Martin Wiedmann, Cornell University: Broadly speaking, I think that the major importance of AMIF’s Food Safety Initiative is its involvement in funding studies of treatments that have been thought to be efficient or are viewed as potentially efficient and in doing so, puts sound science behind what anecdotally is thought to be true. In other words, the research is helping industry to identify which of these approaches that we think or hope are effective can actually be proved to have a positive impact on reducing E. coli contamination or preventing and reducing L. monocytogenes growth. In this way, industry has the chance to take strategies or technologies which AMIF projects have shown really work well and translate them into action.
I think AMIF’s involvement in supporting research in the E. coli O157:H7 area has resulted in providing a scientific basis for the use of direct fed and antimicrobial probiotics, which has been very important to industry. Similarly, AMIF-funded research in the area of L. monocytogenes has been very helpful to meat and poultry processors, by characterizing the effects of lactate, diacetate and other antimicrobials and defining the best combinations of antimicrobials to effectively prevent L. monocytogenes growth.
Dr. Dean Danilson, Tyson Foods: The AMIF has funded and facilitated hundreds of projects directly impacting and contributing to improved food safety efforts of the industry. Research in the areas of E. coli O157:H7 pre-harvest and processing systems and the Listeria work that AMIF has shepherded, facilitated and funded, and even to some degree captured, cooperative funding from other sources in joint or matching funds—all lead to an end purpose of getting information to the industry that they need on the technical side of the food safety area.
Dr. Margaret Hardin, Boar’s Head: In general, the AMIF Food Safety Initiative has been focused on ultimately eliminating those two pathogens. The research focus on the comparison of rapid methods, the compositing of samples and keeping up with the new antimicrobials in terms of identifying and/or reducing Listeria monocytogenes from RTE meat and poultry products is very helpful to industry.
There are a lot of companies out there selling rapid methods and antimicrobial products and trying to separate those out is a daunting task. The results of AMIF research provide meat and poultry companies with the science to support our food safety decisions, and help us to differentiate strategies and technologies that are most effective and that meet our needs.
Collette Schultz Kaster, Premium Standard Farm: I would add that not only does good research come out of the AMIF’s research funding process but there is a healthy discussion between the research advisory committee members about research needs and how proposed projects can be tailored to help the industry.
FSM: AMIF also has supported food safety research and offered educational courses and best practices workshops in other areas of importance to the meat and poultry industry, including current state-of-the-science information on the safety of sodium nitrite, the challenge of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and principles of sanitary equipment and facility design to enhance sanitation in the plant, to name a few. Will you discuss the impact of these efforts on the meat and poultry industry?
Huffman: We always knew that nitrite was critically important in creating products with specific cured attributes, and in preventing the outgrowth of Clostridium botulinum. More recent information, as demonstrated in the USDA pathogen modeling program shows that nitrite also has antimicrobial effects on Listeria monocytogenes. Over the years, AMI has fought major battles to defend the safety of nitrite as a meat curing agent. At times, we felt we were the lone voice preaching its importance; today, we are in good company with leading medical researchers at National Institutes of Health (NIH) who are now looking at nitrite’s promise as a treatment for organ transplants, high blood pressure and numerous other conditions. In 2000, the U.S. National Toxicology Program completed a painstaking, multi-year cancer bioassay and declared nitrite safe. Not only are we glad we never doubted nitrite’s importance, we are grateful that it has now earned the scientific respect it deserves.
On BSE, we have fought as much a policy battle, as a perception battle. The nickname Mad Cow Disease strikes fear into the hearts of many who have watched Europe’s struggle during the 1990’s with a mix of revulsion and fascination. Lost in the battle over sound policies is the fact that 96 percent of worldwide BSE cases have occurred in the United Kingdom and 87 percent of all BSE cases have occurred before 1997, when the disease curve hit its peak. BSE is on its way out of Europe. It has not taken hold in the United States—nor will it, thanks to the industry’s and government’s proactive efforts. It’s imperative that we maintain perspective in the scientific and public arenas.
Back to the food safety arena, we are certainly gratified by the efforts of our partners in the equipment industry who are adopting new and improved sanitary design principles when making equipment upgrades and new machinery. AMI member companies spearheaded an effort several years ago to develop principles of sanitary equipment and facility design and we are beginning to see the fruits of that labor. We think that over time, these long term modifications to the facilities and machinery used to process ready to eat meat and poultry products will be instrumental in maintaining the sustained declines that we’ve seen in the prevalence of Listeria monocytogenes in RTE products. The AMI principles of sanitary design have played major roles in the reengineering now occurring today, and that is a gratifying result.
Minerich: In a general way, the success of the AMIF-funded food safety research projects have had a tremendous impact for guiding academia towards an applied research approach versus the more traditional “look and see” studies. The increased number of requests and increased funding provided by industry attests to the success of this approach. Nitrites, BSE, sanitary equipment design and other relevant interests require a process that partners the needs of industry with academia.
This interchange, mediated through the AMIF, helps industry focus our money on projects that have a meaningful impact on our operations and addresses the regulatory challenges associated with food safety objectives. Academic research is guided by industries needs to provide data that can be translated into practice or expand our knowledge on a subject of common interest. Many of these projects are complex and require funding over several years to generate the quality of data that can be acted upon with confidence. This relationship continues to grow because the model sponsored by the AMIF provides a win-win solution to both parties involved.
Wiedmann: I would also say that the AMIF educational workshops bring together different members of industry to talk about food safety challenges as a noncompetitive issue, and these discussions have a major impact because it supports industry as a whole in working together to make progress in these areas. Together with industry and others in the meat and poultry sector, AMI has taken a leadership role in the development of sanitary equipment and facility design principles, bringing these concepts to industry to facilitate improvements in plant food safety. With these principles, industry has been able to show suppliers what they really need and working together the processing industry has been able to get suppliers to design and manufacture equipment and facilities that can be sanitized more easily and more effectively.
Danilson: AMIF has a very competent, well-respected staff, and the technical materials they provide in support of the industry, along with the training courses they offer are great tools for the industry and our company. These support materials are excellent for both small and large companies, and AMIF provides a platform and forum for discussion of research findings and new technology applications that would be difficult for any company to obtain on its own.
Hardin: One major AMIF effort that I’ve found particularly important is the translation of research to practical application such as the development of principles for sanitary equipment, sanitary facility design and Listeria control. It is easy to talk about but to actually have best practices guidelines that help our suppliers know what the industry’s needs are has had a great impact.
Schultz Kaster: The AMIF training has a significant impact. For a small- or medium-sized company to learn from experts at academia and from larger companies in industry, it is an excellent opportunity to learn from people who have a lot of these high-risk products and are working with it everyday. I think it has definitely demonstrated that food safety is a non-competitive area and just as AMIF led this approach it really is happening that way.
FSM: What are some of the promising pathogen intervention, process control or monitoring technologies related to AMIF FSI research that have been found to be useful in reducing microbial loads and/or providing enhanced quality control in processing operations?
Huffman: We have been informed by reliable feedlot industry sources that possibly as much as 10 percent of fed cattle in the U.S. are now being fed the direct fed microbial compounds that were the basis of study in the AMIF-sponsored Texas Tech research that indicated these microbial strains, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, could reduce the number of cattle shedding E. coli O157:H7 at slaughter. If accurate, that is a significant number of cattle and an exciting applied development as we continue to seek proven pre-harvest pathogen control methods. Likewise, we are aware that there has been widespread reformulation of certain cured meat categories with lactate and diacetate with the intent to prevent Listeria growth during shelf life, and AMIF funded several projects on the use of these important antimicrobials.
Minerich: From Hormel Foods’ perspective, AMIF-funded research validating post-package lethality food safety interventions such as high pressure pasteurization, hot water pasteurization and certain antimicrobial agents offer the most useful data. In general, all of the data produced via the independent academic community has value in one way or another. The variety of interventions being explored provide data for each industry member to evaluate based on their specific product lines, processes and food safety objectives. All of our plant processes are designed to deliver safe and wholesome foods, but the interventions being explored through these initiatives provide options to reduce risk and ensure the safety of the foods being produced.
Wiedmann: Listeria growth inhibition is definitely a very important area. Controlling and reducing Listeria contamination in the environment is another big one and some of the projects targeted that, but it is looking at biofilm or other questions of how one can reduce Listeria in environment.
In the E. coli area, AMIF research under the Food Safety Initiative has focused on control strategies throughout the food chain, from on-farm/on-ranch, through antimicrobials, controlling E. coli in drinking water, to post-harvest, like reducing E. coli on hides through hide washes, beef carcass surface decontamination systems, and pathogen detection strategies. Support of a comprehensive farm-to-table food safety approach by AMIF definitely represents the most promising avenue to control this pathogen.
Danilson: The preharvest work on E. coli O157:H7 provided a lot of useful and valuable information to help that segment of the industry. Although the research has spurred some activity and progress in the development of products and potential applications based on the results of this research, the findings have not culminated yet in widespread use commercially. AMIF functions to place information on the table that is instrumental in keeping the good research flowing to further develop science-based strategies to reduce E. coli O157:H7 in all stages of production.
Schultz Kaster: This approach, taking things through the whole chain upstream and appropriate to the live animal to have impact in case of Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7 and go after it with hurdle approach of multiple interventions, not just putting all of our eggs in one basket and focusing one a single approach.
FSM: Has AMIF and its Research Advisory Committee identified emerging challenges for the meat industry, and if so, what are they and how does the panel anticipate these will be addressed within the framework of FSI activities?
Huffman: Antimicrobial resistant foodborne pathogens have been identified as a key area on which to focus research funding, as has Salmonella control on raw poultry, where declines have not been as pronounced as they have been on beef and pork. AMIF is now considering research proposals aimed at these new priority areas.
Minerich: From the microbiological perspective, Salmonella appears to be attracting more attention by the Food Safety and Inspection Service. The agency is pleased to see the reductions recently announced on the incidence Salmonella over that past few years; however, Salmonella still affects a large portion of the population. I believe we’ll see more AMIF-funded research designed to identify and understand opportunities to reduce Salmonella contamination rates further upstream in the process, from the egg to slaughter.
Wiedmann: One area that has been identified is multi-drug resistant Salmonella, and I think this is an area where AMIF can build on its success with E. coli O157:H7 where it looks at both pre- and post-harvest strategies for controlling it. Another one coming up in the future is developing a truly integrated approach to food safety, farm to table, and really being able to decide that if you have X amount of dollars and you need to achieve an X-fold log reduction, where is the stage in your processes where your investment is most likely to help you reach your food safety goals. Is it in the pre-harvest area, the post-harvest area, or a combination of the two? And if it is a combination, how much should you invest in each areas. I think that is the future challenge.
Danilson: Foodborne illness and public health related issues are the primary concerns that are dealt with in the AMIF forum. AMIF aids us in keeping up with the public health issues that surround the food industry. AMIF is effective in collaborating with the CDC and public health and regulatory agencies—on issues of concern which need industry focus and attention, such as emerging issues such as multi-drug resistant Salmonella, performance standards associated with them in the regulatory arena. While we focus on the day-to-day activities of the business, the AMIF is a valuable resource and information tool to us in industry to help us keep up with the emerging issues, and working collaboratively in developing science based information to aid in appropriate decision making and strategic planning.
Hardin: I agree with Randy, antimicrobial resistant pathogens is where we’re seeing the push and this has been put on the research agenda.
Schultz Kaster: Since our operation is vertically integrated, the area of antibiotic usage and resistance and how it feeds into all of the regulatory decisions and the research is a key area, because that affects our operations—not just at the plants but all the way back to the lab operations.
FSM: What do you think are the most significant food safety issues currently faced by meat and poultry processing operations, and what can processors do today to address them?
Huffman: In my 20 years in this industry, I’ve learned that just as you solve one problem, nature offers a new one. In addition to the challenges I’ve detailed earlier, ensuring that we remain vigilant and proactive against emerging pathogens, viruses, animal diseases and other events we can’t even forecast now will be critical.
For the short term, our focus must be on validating existing food safety technologies that are being used on the myriad of products and processes that are being produced today. In many cases a food safety intervention that works remarkably well in one processing environment, for a certain type of product, may have limited effectiveness or negative implications when used on a different product in a different environment.
It’s also critical that we identify, validate and implement food safety technologies that have minimal impact on product quality and cost. If absolute safety means that a product has “off flavors” and/or is prohibitively expensive, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot. It is essential that we achieve a sufficient margin of safety without pricing–or tasting–ourselves right out of the market.
Minerich: Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria remain high on the list of food safety concerns for the food industry. Significant food safety interventions have been commercialized and through the AMI, sanitary equipment design has been significantly improved. I expect to see more attention given to exploring these organisms in the environment to minimize potential contamination of the plant facilities. By reducing or eliminating the organism outside processing plant boundaries, there will be a dramatic effect on the contamination rates and levels in the processing plant environment and in fresh and frozen raw meat.
Eliminating the potential for cross- contamination of food allergens in the processing environment represent another food safety issue requiring more attention and understanding. A significant number of our consumers are sensitive to allergenic proteins and industry continues to investigate methods to develop more efficient methods for cleaning equipment between production runs.
Continued advancements in intervention technologies will help industry meet tomorrow’s regulatory challenges, especially as microbial detection limits continue to improve. Developing affordable and effective post-package pasteurizing systems will be an ongoing objective.
Wiedmann: On the pathogen side, E. coli, Listeria, multi-drug resistant Salmonella, and for poultry, Campylobacter, and the big unknown—the new and emerging pathogens. It is important to be prepared for the emerging pathogens and I feel AMIF is prepared to deal with these challenges; AMIF’s advisory groups and its established research funding infrastructure allows it to quickly direct resources towards both research and industry workshops on these new and emerging organisms and through these activites AMIF has already had and will continue to have a very big impact.
As I mentioned earlier, the other challenge for the industry is integrating pre- and post-harvest and to truly define what intervention strategies work and where to use them to enhance an operation’s ability to achieve food safety goals. It is important for the processors to work with the feed lots, the ranchers and raw material suppliers with an eye toward setting up some sort of more formal systems, if they have not done so already, to encourage financially safer product, safer raw materials (meaning those with reduced pathogen loads), and provide economic incentives for that. Such a system would make sense because the processor is willing to pay for pre-delivery control strategies because they know that will ultimately reduce for the risk for their operations and their customers and consumers downstream.
We have good idea of what some of the promising areas for interventions are but not the monetary value that should be attached to raw materials that arrive with a reduced microbial load and are therefore more value-added in terms of food safety. So if you have a cow that has been fed probiotics for two months, how much more is it worth than a cow that hasn’t, if everything else is the same? Therefore, the ultimate challenge is to develop a truly integrated food safety systems with science-based interventions that are rewarded with appropriate economic incentives at all stages of the food systems continuum.
Danilson: In addition to the foodborne pathogens mentioned earlier, allergens are also an issue of regulatory and consumer concern. There are sensitive ingredients that industry now has to be aware of and focus on in our processing operations. Outside of processing, there are issues that impact manufacturers that we don’t have direct impact on, such as animal health issues like BSE and avian flu. Information-gathering and communicating food safety knowledge are key items in helping the public clearly understand the issues involved in maintaining a safe food supply.
Hardin: Again, I think Randy is right on track here. Everyone has to remain proactive and vigilant because we don’t know what is going to hit or where it is going to come from. Once you think you’ve got a problem solved another one comes up, so you have to be willing to keep up with change. Also, I agree with Randy on the short-term issues. Right now, I’d say one of our priorities is validating the food safety technologies, and providing education at all levels from management to the line worker.
Schultz Kaster: Taking intervention technologies and making them consistently applicable in a production setting, in particular sanitation practices and product handling practices, is one way that processors can address the primary food safety challenges we face today. We can write perfect programs designed on perfect research but at the end of the day we produce meat products for many hours each day at high volumes, so it is important that we focus on the basics and make sure food safety programs and best practices are applicable and practical. And, we need to make sure to teach people, from the employees to the front-line supervisors, what those best practices are and figure out ways to make food safety meaningful to all employees in the company.