Over the past two decades, the Beef Checkoff has spent more than $30 million on food-safety issues, part of an ongoing industry-wide effort.

“The NCBA, through the Beef Checkoff, has been working since 1993 to identify needs and prioritize research to continually improve beef safety,” says Mandy Carr-Johnson, checkoff senior executive director of science and product solution. “We want everyone in the industry to have the best science and the best information available, so they can make sound decisions.”

The early days of the effort focused on E. coli 0157:H7. A 1993 outbreak stemming from undercooked ground beef at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants resulted in the death of four children and more than 700 illnesses. It was the worst outbreak of foodborne illness on record. The public was stunned.

Within a year, the USDA declared a zero-tolerance policy toward E. coli 0157:H7, declaring it an “adulterant,” a term previously reserved for foreign substances and chemicals.

But what most in the general public did not know was the industry was already on the case. The policymakers would argue the legalities of the USDA edict, but no one wanted to be responsible for the next outbreak. The beef industry set about finding a solution.

Measures were implemented all along the production chain, aimed at eliminating the risk of contamination. Jack-in-the-Box went from no microbial testing to random testing every 15 minutes. A public education campaign, sponsored in part by the Beef Checkoff, taught consumers to thoroughly cook meat before serving.

“The first efforts were to try to understand the pathogen,” says Dr. Tommy Wheeler, food technology specialist at U.S. Meat Animal Research Center. “From our initial work, it quickly became clear the main source of contamination was the hide.” Packing plant pens, where cattle from different sources are mixed and mingled and hides can easily become contaminated by fecal matter, were obvious breeding grounds.

Packing houses made breaking the pathogen chain a priority at every step. In 1995, the USDA approved steam pasteurization, and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) now lists numerous approved antimicrobial washes or interventions.

“The first step is to get the hide as clean as possible before it is opened up,” Wheeler says. An intervention is then applied as soon as the hide is opened. A steam vacuum is generally used on the back legs for spot cleaning of fecal matter, then a wizard knife is used to trim any possible contamination along the cutting pattern lines.

After the hide is removed, the carcass is washed prior to evisceration, using hot water, antimicrobial compounds, lactic acid or bromine (meat treated with bromine was recently banned by Japan).

As the carcass moves down the line it is visually inspected at every step and suspect areas trimmed. The carcass is then subjected to a final wash, often steam or hot water in a wash cabinet followed by an antimicrobial rinse.

As it moves into the cooler, where cooling is accelerated by a spray of cold water, that water may include another antimicrobial bath. There might even be another antimicrobial spray added during grading. Then, trimmings and ground beef, the product at the greatest risk of E. coli contamination, may be treated again before packing.

“There is no silver bullet. E. coli control involves every step of the process. It’s a multi-hurdle approach,” Wheeler says.

The beef-packing industry invests more than $550 million annually in beef safety. “They’re implementing intervention strategies, validating interventions, conducting microbial testing and their own research, all to continuously improve the safety of beef,” says Chase Adams, NCBA director of communications.

The results: Cases of E. coli 0157:H7 peaked in 2001 and have declined by about 80 percent since. By 2010 it was the only foodborne pathogen to fall below the National Health Objective’s ten10 infections per 1 million consumers benchmark.

Six additional strains of E. coli have been declared adulterants by the USDA in recent years, all controlled by implemented pathogen elimination procedures.

But the work is not finished. For researchers, it’s all about staying ahead of the game.

Keeping beef safeWheeler says current research focuses on the animal causing the contamination — so-called “super shedders.”  Two to 5 percent of animals, for whatever reason, expel excessive quantities of pathogen in their feces. “There is something about those animals that make them susceptible to microbe colonization.” He says they hope to identify these animals and target the problem by looking at the animals’ genetics and immune response in determining the cause of this increased susceptibility.

Despite the success, the government is increasing the pressure. The FSIS announced, in mid-August, a presumptive positive test for E. coli 0157:H7 will now trigger an investigation, rather than waiting for confirmation of test results.

Kristina Butts, NCBA executive director of legislative affairs, says this is one of a string of new measures currently on the table that the NCBA will review and assess for effectiveness versus cost of implementation. “There are collective conversations with FSIS and assessment of the science as it pertains to policy development, all within the review of regulations targeting the industry,” Butts says. “The goal is to make sure better decisions are being made that have a positive impact on public health.”

Thanks to beef-industry efforts, E. coli is no longer the threat it was, but threats to food safety continue to evolve. Salmonella is the new hot button issue, with nearly 42,000 cases reported in the United States annually. While beef represents a small portion of those cases (produce and poultry seem to create more immediate concern) the beef-safety mechanism is not taking anything for granted.

“We started dealing with this shift more than five years ago in our pre-harvest research program,” Carr-Johnson says.

Wheeler says around 4.2 percent of ground beef has Salmonella, mostly caused by two serotypes — Montevideo and Anatum, neither of which are common types to cause human disease outbreaks. A recent poultry outbreak was the result of the more common Newport and Typhimurium serotypes.

“There’s a difference in bacteria,” Wheeler says. “Some are more risky to human health. And Salmonella’s not like E. coli where a few cells can make a person sick. It takes a higher level of exposure and then only to certain strains. There is a great deal yet to learn. That, I think, is why regulations have not been implemented. They’re trying to let the knowledge base catch up.”

But while the risk from Salmonella in beef is not huge, it can avoid now-common-practice interventions because it is found in the animal’s lymph nodes. “There are small lymph nodes all through the carcass,” Wheeler explains. So while it is becoming more common for packers to cut out the larger nodes during processing, it is impossible to remove all of them. “That leaves us with the question of what we can do in the live animal to control this.”

Is it possible a vaccine can be developed to control the pathogen?

“We’re looking at the whole genome sequencing of Salmonella,” Wheeler says. The goal is to identify genetic targets for use by commercial testing companies. “The result, hopefully, will be better tests to detect the problem as we continue to weigh the human health effects against preventative measures that are not a disaster for the industry to implement.”

And that equation again falls back in the lap of NCBA’s Government Affairs Office, which works not only with FSIS regulation but has been a consistent force in policy development on the legislative level for decades. “We’re always on the lookout for unrealistic regulation or regulation that is not supported by sound science,” Butts says. “We’ve been able to prevent problematic ideas from becoming laws and worked to keep meat inspectors on the job during government shutdowns. We are always looking at the interpretation of new measures and how they will impact the industry and public health.”

The office also works with NCBA membership to keep “pushing the envelope” on food-safety concerns. Next up is antibiotic resistance. The Centers for Disease Control has identified more than 2 million people in the United States each year who contract infections that are resistant to antibiotics.

“Antibiotic resistance is a topic of discussion in Washington for all users of antibiotics, including human use and food animal production,” Butts says, and Carr-Johnson adds that the checkoff is on the case as well: “We want to better understand any potential link between animal production practices and the impact on human health.”

Research shows animals treated for infections such as respiratory disease or shipping fever will show a short-term spike in levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but those levels are no different from untreated animals by slaughter. New research compares beef feedlot runoff ponds, swine lagoons and human municipal sewer systems, as well as comparing cattle raised by conventional methods and those under “natural” programs to see if any of these environments have different levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “It’s the levels at harvest we need to be worried about,” Wheeler says. “There is a low-level background of antibiotic resistance present almost everywhere. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria were present even before we invented antibiotics.”

Meanwhile, certain groups claiming to act on behalf of the consumer are getting antsy. The California legislature recently passed a bill that would require veterinary prescription and oversight of antibiotic use on beef animals. The bill specifically addresses penicillin and tetracycline and does not restrict drugs used solely for animals.

But Wheeler, Butts and Carr-Johnson all caution that any industry action needs to be based on sound science and not public perception of the problem.

“We’ll continue to evaluate the science and the best way to implement regulation based on impact, with an eye on a holistic approach that benefits public health,” Butts says. “The last thing anyone wants is an unsafe product reaching consumers.”

Read more, including articles on beef quality and safety, in the September digital edition of Drovers/CattleNetwork.