A TCFA pilot program aim to keep the beef industry out in front of safety and quality concerns.

Since October 1997, 11 Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) member feedlots have cooperated on a test designed to incorporate HACCP (Hazard Analysis And Critical Control Points) principles into the organization's Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program.

By the end of 1998, this pilot test could help the nation's feeding industry:

* Instill additional confidence in U.S. and foreign consumers about U.S. beef through a formal and preventive HACCP approach, showing the world that the U.S. cattleman is proactive in producing safe food.

* Keep the beef industry in the forefront of voluntary approaches to food safety that will forestall government-mandated programs.

* Use HACCP's detailed recordkeeping system to increase beef quality and remove some of the inconsistencies identified in the National Beef Quality Audit.

* Prepare the industry for dealing with future technological changes that may identify other food safety challenges at the production level.

Lofty But Necessary Goals

Those are lofty goals, but also necessary ones, says Ben Weinheimer, TCFA regulatory manager. And they are certainly worthy of effort. The first step, though, is getting through the pilot program.

"We felt this pilot program was needed in order to evaluate the program on a smaller scale before we roll out a BQA program with HACCP principles to the membership at large," Weinheimer says. "In early May 1998 we will develop a report from this pilot program. TCFA membership will review that report this summer and determine if we accomplished our goals."

If all goes well, TCFA staff should have the final okay to roll out the program at the end of December 1998.

TCFA launched BQA in 1986 to assure consumers that the beef product they were eating was produced through a quality- and safety-conscious program. BQA was the right program for the right time. Soon, state after state adopted similar programs both for feedyards and ranches. Today, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), BQA impacts the management of 98% of fed cattle and 90% of the nation's cow-calf producers.

BQA worked because it focused resources on proper techniques for administering animal health products, monitoring feed sources and livestock handling. The program's objectives were to exceed food safety requirements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA. Again, according to NCBA, "the result of these efforts is an outstanding record with respect to virtually no violative residues of animal health products or pesticides in beef products."

However, the world's move to HACCP principles caused the re-examination of BQA, Weinheimer says. HACCP is a food safety program that started almost 40 years ago to assure the wholesomeness of astronauts' diet when they were in space. The program focuses on preventing hazards that can cause foodborne illnesses by applying science-based controls from raw materials to finished products.

To do this, HACCP involves seven steps:

* Analyze potential hazards associated with a food.

* Identify critical control points where the hazard can be controlled or eliminated.

* Establish preventive measures with critical limits for each control point.

* Establish procedures to monitor the control points.

* Establish effective recordkeeping to document the HACCP system.

* Establish procedures to verify that the system is working consistently.

On July 8, 1996, USDA required all meat and poultry plants to implement HACCP programs. Two years ago, FDA proposed that every seafood processor follow HACCP guidelines in both domestic and imported seafood. These regulations went into effect in December 1997. Also in 1997, President Clinton requested $43.2 million in the 1998 fiscal year to include expanding HACCP to fruit and vegetable juices and egg products.

The government has been reluctant to mandate HACCP at the animal production level. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has no regulatory authority to do so, according to FSIS Administrator Thomas J. Billy. "Our strategy is to encourage the voluntary use of food safety and quality assurance programs, based on HACCP principles, to reduce preharvest food safety risks," Billy told the Livestock Conservation Institute last spring.

Texas Program Is A Logical Step TCFA's program helps the industry move in that direction. And consumer confidence is another reason why it makes good sense.

Because of the government's regulations at other levels, the public may come to expect and believe that all products they buy are produced through a HACCP program. A voluntary approach will help the industry retain the consumer's confidence. It also will help maintain the industry's record within USDA of having the best microbiological profile of any of the products subject to HACCP regulations.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason for this record is from the industry embracing the BQA program more than a decade ago. That program still serves as the basis for the incorporation of HACCP principles, Weinheimer says, as it expands its highly effective and voluntary food quality assurance program.

"We are making some changes in the BQA manual to include new terminology and formalization of what we've been doing in BQA to incorporate the HACCP principles, Weinheimer says. "The two major changes are additional records and written internal verification of activities at the feedyard."

How The Program Works The BQA-HACCP program covers the same three areas as the original BQA program: feed sources, cattle and pharmaceuticals. Feedyard managers implement the seven steps of HACCP in each area.

"TCFA staff and committees met with various HACCP consultants to revise the BQA program to include HACCP principles," Weinheimer says. "It still covers the same areas as our original BQA, adds more tools and information for management, and can be used as an employee training handbook."

The Southwest Meat Association (SMA), whose members were among those companies that had to implement HACCP programs because of government mandate, lauds TCFA's leadership in this area. Joe Harris, SMA's executive director, says the voluntary program sends the public a strong message about beef's commitment to safe food production.

"It's important to convince the public that the beef industry is doing all it can from the farm to the consumer to provide wholesome food," Harris says. "BQA with HACCP principles does this. It shows that the industry is controlling the type of problems that it has the power to control, such as residue avoidance and elimination of broken needles."

At present, no one knows which management practices control foodborne pathogens at production levels. But someday, Harris says, scientific knowledge and technology improvement may provide this information. A HACCP-based program allows the industry to adapt to these changes much more quickly because it has the program in place.

"The best thing about this is that the producer becomes familiar with HACCP at the same time the whole world moves toward its principles," Harris says. "As technology is developed to identify and deal with pathogens at the production level, the program already is in place to identify pathogen control points."

>From Food Safety To Quality Improvement HACCP, of course, was developed for food safety. But it also can be adapted to quality improvement as well. Written records and elimination of hazards all provide constant monitoring of control points that can enhance quality. In instances, such as injection site lesions, food safety and beef quality work hand in hand.