It was at the same time a celebration of a decade of beef safety progress and a solemn recognition of the long road ahead. When about 230 food safety experts gathered in Tampa, Fla., for the 10th anniversary of the Beef Industry Safety Summit in early March, they heard about the beef industry’s success in improving beef safety and increasing consumer confidence in the product. But they also acknowledged more can be done to address pathogen issues.
Encouraging words didn’t just come from within the industry. Bill Marler of the law firm Marler Clark, who has litigated many lawsuits involving E. coli O157:H7 contamination – including the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, an industry E. coli challenge 20 years ago – told the group through a keynote panel that his litigation business has gone from about 95 percent beef industry-related 20 years ago to less than 5 percent today.
“You can tell from the marketplace that the industry has done a helluva job,” he told the food safety experts in attendance. “That’s a tribute to everyone in this room.”
During the panel presentation Dave Theno, hired immediately after the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak to develop new food safety systems for the company, said the tragedy was a wake-up call that led to the formation of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo), which in turn helped create best safety practices to help beef companies improve their operations. But it was a 19 million pound ground beef recall at ConAgra in 2002 that was the impetus for creating the Beef Industry Safety Summit, which brings together leading food safety experts every year to share their ideas for making the U.S. beef supply safer.
Theno said the first summit in 2003 helped people reach across their individual beef industry sector and build bridges to think differently about feed safety. “To win this battle, everyone needs to work together,” said Theno. “We’re not in the cattle business anymore, we’re in the food business.”
Both Theno and Marler cautioned the audience that complacency was not an option.
“If you’re not focused on food safety, your priorities are messed up, because food safety is the one thing you bet your business on every day,” said Theno. Marler agreed. “You still have things to do,” he said. “You must recommit yourselves to the process.” Marler said that while national recalls have decreased significantly over the last 10 years, regional challenges still remain, and those “could have devastating consequences.”
Other speakers during the 3-day Summit, funded in part by the Beef Checkoff Program, said that while the industry has rightfully been focusing on E. coli O157:H7, other pathogens now pose significant challenges for the industry. Brian Covington, global director of regulatory affairs at Keystone Foods, said Salmonella is being scrutinized across species, and beef will incur its share of attention. The pathogen, which can live in an animal’s lymphatic system, will remain an industry challenge and E. coli O157:H7 may lose the spotlight.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cites Salmonella as the foodborne pathogen responsible for the most hospitalizations and deaths in the United States and the second most illnesses, behind norovirus. All strains of E. coli (including E. coli O157:H7) are responsible for about 20 deaths each year.
Several Summit participants from the cattle production sector of the industry gave high marks to current post-harvest interventions, but thought more could be done throughout the beef production chain. They also thought it was important producers continue to support these kinds of efforts through their Beef Checkoff Program.
“This Beef Safety Summit is a perfect example of how things are getting better,” according to Dina Chacon-Reitzel, executive director of the New Mexico Beef Council (NMBC), which provided funding to the Summit from state-directed Beef Checkoff dollars. “Progress is made when all of these safety experts come together and freely share their information.”
Roger Clift, a commercial cattle feeder and processor from the North Texas panhandle, agreed, and said that while many factors will always play a role in beef production, food safety will continue to be a top priority. The Summit helps reflect that beef producer commitment to the challenge.
“From environmental stewardship to food safety, beef producers really care,” said Clift, who also serves as the 2012 Texas Beef Council chairman. “And I think all checkoff payers can be proud of what the industry is doing” on beef safety with their checkoff investments.
Chacon-Reitzel said cattlemen are an integral element in pressing for positive food safety results. “Even though I know that cattlemen are very capable in what they do, and care about their cattle and making the best quality beef product out there, seeing the food safety experts all getting together to see how they can make beef safer is valuable,” she said. “It’s just incredible to see how these people are using advanced practices and research, doing everything they can to make a better beef product for consumers.”
Part of the producer involvement in beef safety has been in helping advance pre-harvest beef safety strategies. Through the Beef Checkoff Program, research has been funded to identify practices and interventions that can effectively reduce the pathogens carried by the live animal that, while not causing illness to the animal, can challenge the effectiveness of post-harvest safety interventions.
Focusing on Essentials
“Beef safety may not be the most fun and interesting subject to a lot of cattlemen, but it’s the most crucial,” said Ashley Hughes, director of beef marketing and promotion for the Florida Beef Council (FBC). “If we don’t have a safe product to provide consumers, we’re going to lose them. They can’t have questions about our industry and what we do.”
Hughes uses what she learns from food safety events to educate a variety of audiences, including consumers. “Whenever we come up with new programs, food safety will always be top-of-mind,” she said. “We want consumers to know how to cook delicious beef, but we also want them to know how to handle it safely.”
Chacon-Reitzel agreed that consumer knowledge and confidence is the bottom line for producers. Consumers are “at the end of the chain,” she said. “That’s why we take our education programs for consumers so seriously, because we do everything we can to make sure that we’re producing safe beef all the way through the chain, but when it gets to the consumer’s home they need to handle it properly.”
Also attending the Beef Industry Safety Summit was Clay Burtrum, a cow-calf/stocker producer from Stillwater, Okla., who commented on the benefits of industry-directed beef safety from a personal viewpoint. “I’ve got three children at home, and I feed them beef because of what I know is going on behind the scenes,” he said. “We’re not just in the cattle business, we’re in the food business. If consumers don’t feel safe with our product it doesn’t matter what we produce, because they won’t buy it.”
Burtrum, who also serves as a regional vice president for the Federation of State Beef Councils, said research shows that consumer confidence in beef is high. “You can also witness that by seeing the higher prices and the fact that people are still buying and serving the product today,” he said.
Still, FBC’s Hughes believes the entire chain needs attention when it comes to beef safety. “With the information I learn at the Beef Industry Safety Summit, I can go back and show (producers) some of the research that’s been done and some of the practices taking place to produce the safest beef product, which is what they expect.”
Those expectations have taken on chain-wide implications. Learning what is being done after a beef animal leaves a ranch or feedlot helps producers renew their commitment to reduce pathogens in the animals they market. The Summit provided information on both pre- and post-harvest interventions and practices to improve beef safety.
“I think beef producers should know their checkoff investment is being used very wisely here,” said Chacon-Reitzel. “The checkoff is really the impetus in many of the advancements in beef safety. And whether it’s the research, developing interventions, disseminating information to consumers or sharing information like we’re doing at the Beef Safety Summit, the checkoff is where it begins. That might not have happened if we hadn’t put our own (checkoff) resources behind it.”