Produce can learn from the beef industry

Bo Reagan sees the produce industry asking some of the same questions the beef industry started asking in 1993. He should know. As executive director of research and technical services for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, he’s been working with the beef industry since an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak from contaminated meat served at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants killed four children in 1993.

Shortly after the outbreak, the beef industry formed the Blue Ribbon Task Force on O157:H7. A united industry research plan was formulated, and ranchers and processors agreed at the time that food safety was a non-competitive issue.

“We wanted to look at the knowns and unknowns of E. coli O157:H7,” Reagan said. But after eight months, “our list of knowns was not too long.”

Reagan said the industry – because it had few clues about where the contamination was entering the system – decided to focus its attention in the most efficient way. There are about 800,000 cattle stock ranchers, but only 35 packer/processors, so prevention efforts and research were put into reducing contaminants once cattle reached the processing facility.

The task force found that simply washing cattle in a “car wash” before they entered the plant reduced E. coli O157:H7 by 2 to 3 log. “Stacking” cleaning systems – which include acid washes, steam pasteurization, irradiation and hot washes – was found to be the most effective prevention practice. Processors could reduce the chance of contamination by reducing the bacteria coming into the facility.

“If you overload the system by bringing in too many pathogens through the back door, you’re going to have a problem,” Reagan said.

In 1994, the industry implemented a test-and-hold program that tracked meat by lot. If contamination appeared in a ground beef sample, the entire lot would be pulled – which could mean as much as 100,000 pounds of ground beef. As tracking became more precise, only half that amount was needed to remove the pathogen.

Natural Selection Foods, the processor implicated in the 2006 outbreak in spinach, has implemented a test and hold program at both the front end and back end. When a shipment of raw product comes into the processing facility, it is broken into lots and tested. Charlie Sweat, president of Natural Selection Foods, said about 460 samples are taken on each truckload and sampled by a third-party laboratory. No product moves into processing until the tests come back negative for E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella. Since the program started, 39 lots have been rejected – 29 tested positive for E. coli and 16 tested positive for salmonella (a few tested positive for both).

When a lot tests positive for a pathogen, the company launches an investigation into the farm the product came from. So far, the source has not been found in any of the rejected lots, either in field samples or irrigation water.

After processing and before the final product is shipped, the packages are held and tested again for the same contaminants. Sweat was proud to say that no packages have tested positive for contamination.

The produce industry can learn from what the beef industry has gone through over the last 15 years, Reagan said. Growers, shippers and handlers are doing the right thing in working together to develop best practices and working with other commodity groups like the beef industry to battle E. coli O157:H7. The biggest threat he sees is complacency. Not now, but a few years down the road. In his industry, companies got complacent every four to five years and then another outbreak would occur.

In 2001, a group of owners met to establish a food safety council and a list of best practices for all sectors of production. Since then, there has been an 80 percent reduction in contamination.

The practices of testing inbound and outbound product and finding effective washing techniques may be expensive, but the cost of a recall is much higher. The cost of recalling spinach bagged by Natural Selection Foods was more than $15 million for the product alone and – as the beef industry found – if one company goes down, the whole industry goes down.

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