Q&A: Beef Industry Safety Summit - Evolution of Beef Safety

by Betty Anne Redson, Senior Director, Technical Dissemination, National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Mandy Carr Johnson, Senior Executive Director, Science and Production Solutions, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff

Summary
Since 2003, the Beef Industry Safety Summit has been the foremost annual event demonstrating the beef industry’s commitment across all segments to producing the safest possible beef product for the domestic and global marketplace. The 2014 summit was held in Dallas on March 4-6. The summit is funded in part by the beef checkoff and the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo), a group instituted in 1997 to bring together representatives from all segments of the beef industry to develop industry-wide, science-based strategies to solve the problem of E. coli O157:H7 and other foodborne pathogens in beef. 

The opening session of the summit featured a panel of industry experts who have witnessed the evolution of both the industry’s understanding of the foodborne pathogens that have threatened beef’s safety, as well as the industry’s efforts across segments to mitigate those threats and meet regulatory requirements. The panel was moderated by Gary Smith, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Colorado State University. The panelists included  Russell Cross, Ph.D., Texas A&M University; John Butler, CEO, Beef Marketing Group (BMG); Dell Allen, Ph.D., retired Cargill Meat Solutions vice president of technical services and food safety; and Dennis Hecker, senior vice president of quality assurance at Wendy’s International.

Q:  From your perspective as the past Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), what significant decisions were made to improve beef safety in the early years of the beef industry’s battle with foodborne pathogens?

Russell Cross: In 1992, only 300 of the 7,000 packing plants nationwide had voluntarily initiated Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). In response, the agency formed a HACCP operations task force and finalized the plan for “War on Pathogens,” a risk-based approach to food safety.
In March 1993, the agency (USDA-FSIS) instituted stricter enforcement of zero-fecal-tolerance for beef. In April, Congress approved $3 million for more meat inspectors and $8 million for the “War on Pathogens” and by May, Congress had granted authority to FSIS to conduct food safety research. Ultimately, HACCP became a mandated requirement for meat plants and an International HACCP Alliance was formed. 

Q:  How has the safety philosophy changed in your cattle-feeding operation over time?

John Butler: BMG has evolved in its thinking from being in the cattle business in 1997 to being in the beef business today from considering safety a packer issue to seeing it as a full-chain issue, including pre-harvest. 

Consumers expect food safety. Reducing the pathogen load on feedyard cattle places the packer in a better position to mitigate the burden in the packing plant. Additional pre-harvest interventions that are effective and economically feasible are needed. Above all else, producers must see their responsibility as extending beyond their fence line and view beef safety as a full-chain concern. Nevertheless, impediments remain to implementing this kind of system across the cattle-feeding segment. It requires operational transparency and traceability, which is often considered an unnecessary constraint in the cattle-feeding business.

Q:  What early milestones significantly impacted the processing sector’s strategies to address pathogens?

Dell Allen: In spring of 1993, FSIS announced a zero tolerance policy on the presence of fecal, ingesta and milk on beef carcasses during the slaughter process. On Sept. 29, 1993, the administrator of FSIS announced that henceforth, E. coli O157:H7 would be an adulterant in raw ground beef.
In time, thanks in part to the work by USDA Meat Animal Research Center, interventions such as steam vacuums, steam pasteurization cabinets and wash cabinets were approved. Eventually, responsibility for beef safety transitioned from USDA’s responsibility to the plant’s responsibility. Researchers around the country, USDA and industry collaborated to develop, validate and implement the interventions that today help keep America’s beef safe. 

Q: What priorities has your foodservice company employed to protect beef safety and protect their brand?

Dennis Hecker: For Wendy’s, the priorities remain the same over time:  protect public health and protect the brand. However, the strategies for addressing these priorities are very different now than in 1993. The science has led to a greater understanding of O157 and STECs, improved diagnostics, numerous interventions and better sampling. Today, ubiquitous information shared through social media means news goes public immediately. Misinformation travels at the speed of light. Overcoming the consumer belief that information on the internet must be true is the greatest industry obstacle. To protect their brand in today’s information age, Wendy’s has developed a social media plan which includes a department dedicated to monitoring social media platforms. Given this change in information sharing, the principles of BIFSCo increase in importance -- collaboration among industry segments and regulatory agencies is critical to provide safe beef.

Gary Smith: In closing, it is important that the Beef Industry Food Safety Council and events like the Beef Industry Safety Summit continue as the industry’s food safety efforts move forward. The industry has been fortunate to have solid scientific and technical support to meet the complex challenges faced over the last 20 years. Initially, the industry was motivated as a consequence of failure, and those who have not invested in processes to improve systems will continue to be reactive in their approach. Moving forward, the industry must continue to share science and data, and not allow safety to become a competitive advantage between companies. Being as strong as the weakest link in the production chain necessitates a continuous improvement mentality for all.

Additional Resources
Beef Industry Food Safety Council

 

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Questions and Answers, Spring 2014

April 9, 2014