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Recall Lessons Learned From the Beef Industry
After a 1993 E. Coli outbreak, the industry enacted changes applicable to other areas of the food industry
by James O. Reagan
In just the first few months of 2009, two high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks associated with peanuts and pistachios have drawn attention to the safety of our food supply. As a result, various food safety-related proposals are flooding the halls of Congress.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the well-publicized outbreaks of the last few years is that they involved products not typically associated with foodborne illness, such as spinach, peppers, and peanuts. As we consider the possibility that an ever-expanding list of foods may require increasing safety scrutiny, it is helpful to chronicle the lessons learned from past recall experiences with beef, one of the first food products to receive public scrutiny with regard to food safety practices.
Outbreak Signals a Shift
In 1993, an outbreak associated with ground beef in the Pacific Northwest introduced the public to Escherichia coli O157:H7, a once little-known strain of the common E. coli bacteria. Hundreds of people were sickened and four people died in an incident that lingers in the public consciousness even today, more than 15 years later.
The events of 1993 signaled the beginning of a major shift for both the beef industry and the public health community. Not only was there a new foodborne illness on the map, but also it had become clear that industry and government needed to change in order to effectively address this new health threat.
Beef industry leaders immediately founded the first ever blue ribbon task force, focused on controlling E. coli O157:H7. The task force wanted to develop an aggressive industry action blueprint, and the panel published its plan for controlling the pathogen in 1995. The task force recommended that hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP)-based programs be implemented throughout the food production chain and developed an industry research roadmap toward a better understanding of the pathogen.
For more than a decade, that blueprint has guided the beef industry to a wide range of advancements in controlling E. coli O157:H7, especially at the harvest and processing levels. HACCP plans are now required for federally inspected beef processing facilities, and an extensive list of safety technologies and interventions is now available, including steam vacuums, whole-carcass steam pasteurization, carcass sprays and washes using hot water and/or organic acids, hide washes, and validated testing procedures. Today, the beef industry spends an estimated $350 million annually researching, validating, and implementing these and other safety interventions as part of a comprehensive safety program.
While no single approach or intervention is a silver bullet against E. coli O157:H7—or any other pathogen—the cumulative effect of different intervention strategies or the “multiple hurdle” approach integrated within a HACCP system is the most effective means to combat foodborne pathogens. This approach can be customized and applied within individual operations as a robust food safety system and has been successfully applied throughout the food industry.
Current and Future Developments
As in-plant safety interventions were implemented across the industry, beef safety experts learned that the effectiveness of those interventions could be enhanced by reducing the load of pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 early in the production process, before an animal reaches the harvest stage. This approach offers great potential for making further progress in beef safety, yet these pre-harvest interventions have remained an elusive goal until recently.
In March 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted a conditional license to the first U.S. vaccine that will reduce the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle. While research continues to secure full licensing for this vaccine and to determine how it can fit into existing production systems, this nonetheless marks a major milestone for the beef industry’s safety efforts. Multiple other technologies, including another vaccine and several feed additives, are also being researched before companies seek government approval for these products.
Although the beef industry has invested millions of dollars in food safety, there is still a lot that we do not know about E. coli O157:H7. For example, seasonal variations in the bacteria’s prevalence are well documented; however, it remains unclear how factors like temperature and moisture contribute to those variations. These questions and other knowledge gaps will continue to be addressed as part of a comprehensive plan to evaluate the farm-to-fork beef production system and our ability to produce safe beef products.
Don’t Forget the Basics
Despite the numerous technological food safety advancements implemented in the beef industry, both data and experience have consistently shown that high-tech interventions complement, rather than replace, basic food safety best practices. All food safety systems must be built on a foundation of good manufacturing practices, sanitation standard operating procedures, and other plant-specific programs.
Employees are a key variable in this equation, and a focused food safety training program is essential. More importantly, food safety staff must be able to observe whether employee food safety training and other processes are actually translating to the desired behaviors, and the best way to accomplish this is by spending as much time as possible on the production floor observing and interacting with employees.
A second variable in the basic food safety equation is suppliers. One of the greatest challenges in today’s food industry is managing a diverse and dynamic supply chain. A lesson that has emerged from beef processors is that successful supplier relationships in any food production system depend on a few key factors: the number of suppliers, the ability to assess supplier compliance using staff or third-party audits, and the ability of the recordkeeping system to track raw materials from multiple suppliers. It is critical to manage each factor to ensure that suppliers are providing raw materials that meet specifications.
When a Recall Hits
Trends seem to indicate that foodborne illness outbreaks are affecting a wider range of products than ever before, which means that even food industry sectors unaccustomed to recalls must review their crisis response procedures. Unfortunately, operations that have never experienced a recall may find it difficult to make crisis preparedness a priority.
While many companies have a crisis plan filed in a drawer in the front office, a recall situation will quickly expose its weaknesses. It is vital that food producers identify weaknesses in advance, and, short of an actual recall, conducting mock recalls is often the best way to test recall procedures. In particular, engaging suppliers and customers will add invaluable insights to a mock recall process.
Mock recalls can yield especially helpful lessons when conducted outside the normal working day, on weekends and holidays, and when key staff are unavailable. Since actual recalls can be initiated at any time, testing crisis preparedness procedures at inopportune times will help ensure the most robust recall response possible.
One way the beef industry has encouraged safety innovation is through the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo). Formed in 1997, BIFSCo unites leaders from every beef industry, from ranchers to retailers and restaurateurs, under the principle that food safety is a noncompetitive issue.
BIFSCo supports the beef industry’s commitment to safety by providing a forum for frank discussions on beef safety challenges, authoring and distributing beef safety education and training materials, monitoring emerging beef safety threats, keeping the industry up to date on the latest beef safety research developments, and identifying knowledge gaps to be addressed by future research.
Since its inception, BIFSCo has developed best practices documents that serve as the guide for food safety procedures at each stage of the beef production process. These documents are continually updated to keep up with the latest scientific developments in food safety and are available free of charge to farmers and ranchers, harvest operations, beef processing operations, restaurateurs, and retailers.
BIFSCo also hosts the annual Beef Industry Safety Summit, started in 2003, to bring the entire beef supply chain into one room to chart a course for future beef safety efforts, refine industry-wide best practices, and share the latest research findings.
Held each March, this year’s summit included valuable, practical information for operations throughout the beef supply chain. Highlights of the 2009 summit included a session summarizing lessons learned from product recalls, case studies from litigation on non-intact beef products, and other real world experiences.
The collaboration fostered by BIFSCo has been key to advancing beef safety, and if your operation involves beef, I encourage you to attend next year’s Beef Industry Safety Summit or consider BIFSCo membership. If you are involved in foods other than beef, I encourage you to participate in associations that can connect you with food safety professionals in your field. While the actions of individual operations are critically important, we must remember that consumers demand food safety regardless of brand, price point, or product. It will only be through the coordinated commitment of entire industries that we can truly address future food safety challenges.
Reagan is chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council and senior vice president of research, education, and innovation at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. To learn more about the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, visit www.bifsco.org.