Pre-harvest interventions for beef safety continue to advance, but the industry needs a more coordinated approach to fully address the issue of food-borne pathogens. That message was clear as West Texas A&M animal scientist Guy Lonergan, PhD., updated NCBA’s summer conference on the industry’s efforts to reduce pathogen levels in animals before they reach packing plants.

Research trials indicate that existing vaccines for E. coli O157:H7, used during the finishing stage, can significantly reduce the number of animals carrying the pathogen and the number of pathogens shed by positive animals. One vaccine, Epitopix, has a conditional license from USDA for use in the United States. Another from the Canadian company Bioniche Life Sciences is approved in Canada and is likely to receive a conditional license in the United States soon. Researchers continue to test both vaccines in different production settings, such as evaluating potential benefits from vaccinating cows, and vaccinating calves once or more before they go to feedlots.

Direct-fed microbial products and sodium chlorate as feed additives show promise against E. coli O157:H7. Research continues on these technologies.

Neomycin, a common antibiotic, probably is the most effective intervention against E. coli O157:H7 in research trials. But with pressures building against the use of antibiotics in livestock, government approval is highly unlikely, as the product is widely used in human medicine.

After briefing the committee on pre-harvest research, Lonergan provided what he called his “op-ed” discussion of beef-safety efforts. Pre-harvest interventions can reduce the prevalence of pathogens in cattle, he says, but there is a lack of information indicating how much those efforts change the rate of contamination in beef. The industry, he says, needs to address this data gap with a more integrated approach to pathogen reduction.

In spite of multiple interventions in packing plants, the continuing occurrence of beef recalls shows that sometimes those interventions fail.

The “drivers of failure,” Lonergan says, could include several possibilities:

  • The pre-harvest pathogen burden could be so high in some cases that pathogen numbers overwhelm the ability of intervention to eliminate them.
  • The intervention itself might be ineffective.
  • Poor training or lack of supervision among plant labor could result in skipped intervention steps or inadequate application of plant interventions.
  • Contamination of fabrication equipment could re-introduce pathogens after interventions are applied.

The industry, Lonergan says, needs to identify specifically where failures occur, then develop process controls to prevent them. Without full application of the classic “hazard analysis and critical control points” (HACCP) approach, the beef-safety focus tends to shift toward testing finished products, rather than prevention. As an example, Lonergran notes the government’s Food Safety Working Group, which recently provided recommendations to the administration for new food-safety rules. The effort is intended toward prevention, and yet, Lonergan notes, the recommendations that FDA and USDA adopted earlier this month focus primarily on testing more beef products for contamination.

Read more on the new food-safety rules.