Despite setbacks in 2007, beef industry leaders believe they're doing a good job of keeping pathogens at bay when it comes to their products. They also think there's a great system in place for addressing E. coli O157:H7 and other potentially harmful E. coli bugs.

Challenges caused by huge recalls and questionable company practices and recordkeeping will remain, however, as the industry attempts to put last year behind it and get back on a positive path. Topps Meat Co. of Elizabethtown, NJ, provided an ignominious cap to the year, with the 67-year-old company going out of business in October after being forced to recall 21.7 million lbs. of frozen ground beef patties due to E. coli O157:H7 concerns. It was the second-largest beef recall ever.

“We were doing a fantastic job until last summer,” says Mohammad Koohmaraie, Ph.D., former director of USDA's U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) in Clay Center, NE. He admits there was more E. coli O157:H7 found in retail ground beef samples in 2007, but remains encouraged by what the overall numbers show.

In fact, USDA's Retail Ground Beef Survey, conducted by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, found the industry made several years of progress before reaching a plateau in 2004.

“Even when you take last year into account, it's nowhere near where it was even six years ago,” Koohmaraie says. “Before last spring, in fact, everyone was bragging on what the beef industry had done.”

For example, in 1996, the government's Healthy People 2010 initiative had set a goal of reducing the number of E. coli O157:H7 infections from 2.7 cases in 100,000 to 1 in 100,000 by the year 2010. In 2003, the industry had reduced it to 1.06 cases, and by 2004 to .9 cases.

Koohmaraie doesn't harbor any notions of reducing these numbers to zero. “We have all of the information we need to reach and maintain the plateau,” he says. There is some potential for reducing them somewhat, but we need more help on the pre-harvest side to knock these numbers down.”

On its way

That's one of the issues being addressed today at USMARC and leading land-grant institutions, with studies investigating both external and internal methods of reducing the organisms. Mike Engler, president and CEO of Cactus Feeders in Amarillo, TX, says the industry has spent money on the pre-harvest side but has yet to come up with the “silver bullet.” And he doubts the industry ever will.

“It's a very difficult approach,” he says. “The animal doesn't see it (E. coli O157:H7) as an invader, and there's no change in the animal. So we're not going to get any help in fighting this pathogen” from the animal's immune system.

Engler, who is the immediate past chairman of the Joint Industry Beef Safety Committee (JIBSC), says there's a big difference between the pre-harvest and the post-harvest approaches to controlling E. coli O157:H7. In pre-harvest, you're usually trying to stop the infection; in post-harvest, you're trying to eliminate the contamination. He thinks the post-harvest approach is ultimately more effective.

“I'm a proponent of adopting technologies that have been proven to be effective in the packing plant,” he says. “This allows the industry to pick and choose between interventions.”

Koohmaraie also prefers efforts in post-harvest, because they address all pathogens, not just E. coli O157:H7.

“Post-harvest washes and other efforts kill bugs regardless of what they are,” he says. “The pre-harvest strategies are generally targeted at just one pathogen, such as E. coli.”

Engler is disappointed that one “surefire solution” to the E. coli O157:H7 issue hasn't been better accepted by consumers. “Like many producers, I'm disappointed that irradiation doesn't seem to be going anywhere,” he says. “It does work.”

Among the emerging issues of potential concern to Koohmaraie are “non-O157” members of the same serotype, called Shiga Toxin producing Escherichia coli, or STEC. These include E. coli O113:H4 and E. coli O33:H11. While these pathogens aren't yet a human issue, Koohmaraie says the industry “can't take its eye off the ball.”

According to Koohmaraie, the industry needs to continuously monitor these pathogens to make sure they never pose a danger to humans.

“There's never been a human case related to non-O157 pathogens, and the industry needs to keep it that way,” he says. Research is now being conducted at USMARC to address these pathogens.

Engler thinks the foundation established for future research in the area is a good one. “We've developed researchers at USDA and in universities who are worldwide experts in food safety and food-borne pathogens,” he says. “As long as we keep them in this field, they're going to keep us ahead of the curve on these issues, and not be surprised by any in the future.”

Coordinated effort

It takes many people to keep the successes coming, according to Mark Riechers, a beef producer from southwest Wisconsin. Riechers, who serves as vice chairman of the checkoff-funded JIBSC, says beef producers have spent $25-$27 million through their checkoff over the past 12-15 years to gather knowledge about reducing pathogens. And for every $1 spent by producers through the checkoff, harvesters have spent $210 to get the knowledge implemented in plants.

“That's a tremendous return that I would like all producers to know about,” he says. Riechers adds that about 80% of the research funded through the checkoff has been implemented by the industry. For instance, five universities shared in checkoff-funded hot-water and steam-vacuuming research in 1995, which led to carcass-cleaning technologies that became common in nearly all U.S. harvesting plants. In the early 1990s, more than 25 different interventions were tested for their effectiveness in reducing pathogens on beef carcasses.

Producers, too, have been valuable in the process, often bringing more than just their experience as cattlemen to the table. Engler, for instance, has a Ph.D. in biology from Johns Hopkins University, and did post-graduate work at Harvard Medical School. Riechers was on the board of visitors at the Wisconsin College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory.

In addition to providing their own ideas on critical food-safety issues, members of research committees push for more checkoff funding for this program area. They also help prioritize the needs for further research.

“I'm very proud of our industry and the progress we've made,” Riechers says. “Of course, that's not to say we can't do better in the future.” He points out that consumers have their own role in assuring safe food, and should know that producers “stake their livelihood” on providing the safest food possible.

Walt Barnhart is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Littleton, CO.

Online support

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is compiling a reference for processors that documents new technologies that could help improve food safety in their plants. Included are new or new applications of equipment, substances, methods, processes or procedures in the slaughter of livestock or the processing of meat. Poultry and egg technologies are also included.

According to FSIS, procedures using steam vacuums, steam pasteurization and antimicrobials are examples of food safety technology advances in recent years. It is making the information available with the idea that increased industry awareness of the new technologies could further promote their use, especially by small plants.

The listing is updated on a weekly basis, and new technologies published will remain on the web for 12 months. It can be found at www.fsis.usda.gov/regulations_&_policies/New_Technology_Table_Feb_06/index.asp.