Recall Lessons Learned From the Beef Industry

In just the first few months of 2009, two high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks associated with peanuts and pistachios have drawn attention to the safety of our food supply. As a result, various food safety-related proposals are flooding the halls of Congress.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the well-publicized outbreaks of the last few years is that they involved products not typically associated with foodborne illness, such as spinach, peppers, and peanuts. As we consider the possibility that an ever-expanding list of foods may require increasing safety scrutiny, it is helpful to chronicle the lessons learned from past recall experiences with beef, one of the first food products to receive public scrutiny with regard to food safety practices.

Beef producers funded basic research to characterize the ecology of E. coli O157:H7. Since 1993, through the Beef Checkoff program, they have invested more than $27 million in science that aims to make food even safer for consumers.

Beef producers funded basic research to characterize the ecology of E. coli O157:H7. Since 1993, through the Beef Checkoff program, they have invested more than $27 million in science that aims to make food even safer for consumers.

Outbreak Signals a Shift

In 1993, an outbreak associated with ground beef in the Pacific Northwest introduced the public to Escherichia coli O157:H7, a once little-known strain of the common E. coli bacteria. Hundreds of people were sickened and four people died in an incident that lingers in the public consciousness even today, more than 15 years later.

The events of 1993 signaled the beginning of a major shift for both the beef industry and the public health community. Not only was there a new foodborne illness on the map, but also it had become clear that industry and government needed to change in order to effectively address this new health threat.

Beef industry leaders immediately founded the first ever blue ribbon task force, focused on controlling E. coli O157:H7. The task force wanted to develop an aggressive industry action blueprint, and the panel published its plan for controlling the pathogen in 1995. The task force recommended that hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP)-based programs be implemented throughout the food production chain and developed an industry research roadmap toward a better understanding of the pathogen.

For more than a decade, that blueprint has guided the beef industry to a wide range of advancements in controlling E. coli O157:H7, especially at the harvest and processing levels. HACCP plans are now required for federally inspected beef processing facilities, and an extensive list of safety technologies and interventions is now available, including steam vacuums, whole-carcass steam pasteurization, carcass sprays and washes using hot water and/or organic acids, hide washes, and validated testing procedures. Today, the beef industry spends an estimated $350 million annually researching, validating, and implementing these and other safety interventions as part of a comprehensive safety program.

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