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.
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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.
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.
While no single approach or intervention is a silver bullet against E. coli O157:H7—or any other pathogen—the cumulative effect of different intervention strategies or the “multiple hurdle” approach integrated within a HACCP system is the most effective means to combat foodborne pathogens. This approach can be customized and applied within individual operations as a robust food safety system and has been successfully applied throughout the food industry.
Current and Future Developments
As in-plant safety interventions were implemented across the industry, beef safety experts learned that the effectiveness of those interventions could be enhanced by reducing the load of pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 early in the production process, before an animal reaches the harvest stage. This approach offers great potential for making further progress in beef safety, yet these pre-harvest interventions have remained an elusive goal until recently.
In March 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted a conditional license to the first U.S. vaccine that will reduce the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle. While research continues to secure full licensing for this vaccine and to determine how it can fit into existing production systems, this nonetheless marks a major milestone for the beef industry’s safety efforts. Multiple other technologies, including another vaccine and several feed additives, are also being researched before companies seek government approval for these products.
Although the beef industry has invested millions of dollars in food safety, there is still a lot that we do not know about E. coli O157:H7. For example, seasonal variations in the bacteria’s prevalence are well documented; however, it remains unclear how factors like temperature and moisture contribute to those variations. These questions and other knowledge gaps will continue to be addressed as part of a comprehensive plan to evaluate the farm-to-fork beef production system and our ability to produce safe beef products.
Don’t Forget the Basics
Despite the numerous technological food safety advancements implemented in the beef industry, both data and experience have consistently shown that high-tech interventions complement, rather than replace, basic food safety best practices. All food safety systems must be built on a foundation of good manufacturing practices, sanitation standard operating procedures, and other plant-specific programs.