Headlines tend to drive consumers’ concerns about food safety. Remember back in the early 1990s when an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak from hamburgers served at the Jack in the Box fast-food chain in the Pacific Northwest sent hundreds to hospitals, with some children dying as a result of the infection? That outbreak sent the industry looking for answers to prevent another horrible incident.

“If you look at our history, food safety has always been a high priority in the beef industry,” says Bo Reagan, NCBA vice president of research and knowledge management. “We know there’s no single silver bullet, and we need intervention steps all through the production chain to participate to keep beef products safe.”

Due to research and the financial support of cattle producers and the industry, today there are a number of interventions at all levels of the food chain to prevent contamination of beef with pathogens. Research into new interventions continues, and those efforts are helping consumers remain confident in the beef supply. 

According to a survey commissioned by the International Food Information Council, overall confidence in the food supply remained at a high level, with 69 percent of Americans indicating they were “very” or “somewhat” confident in the food supply, compared to 72 percent last year. However, the number of Americans selecting “very confident” decreased from 21 percent in 2006 to 15 percent this year.

Twenty-five percent of those surveyed cited no particular food safety concern. Of the three-quarters of respondents who listed a specific food safety concern, disease and contamination topped the list at 38 percent, which would encompass bacterial infections like E. coli O157:H7.

Consumer concern over safety of products being imported into this country is also impacting the type of information they want about the food they eat. The survey found a jump in the number of consumers wanting to know the source of their food. It went from 6 percent of those citing a specific concern with the food supply in 2006 to 20 percent this year. Handling and preparation decreased as a food safety concern, cited by 26 percent of those stating a specific concern this year. That’s a 9 percent drop from last year’s survey.

As a producer, you are confident that the food you produce is safe, and it’s important to relay that message when you have an opportunity. Here are some talking points to help in conversations with consumers, as well as “walking points” to help you practice what you preach.

Talking Points

  • Producing the safest beef in the world is a beef producer’s No. 1 priority.  
  • America’s beef producers have invested more than $25 million since 1993 in beef safety research, leading to best practices which serve as a road map in reducing E. coli O157:H7. These best practices are in addition to strict oversight by USDA.
  • Greater than 80 percent of the research funded by America’s beef producers is used throughout the beef supply chain, on a daily basis, to enhance the safety of beef and beef products.
  • As partners in the beef supply chain, all segments of the industry believe that safety is a non-competitive issue and openly share information, research and best practices because of our commitment to providing safe beef.
  • The Beef Industry Food Safety Council, founded more than a decade ago, brings together representatives from all segments of the beef industry to develop industry-wide, science-based strategies to ensure beef safety. These industry best practices (available at www.bifsco.org) are widely available and adopted.
  • Proper cooking is a critical part of food safety. Always cook ground beef to 160° F, and steaks and roasts to 145° F.
  • All beef, whether organic, natural or conventional, is safe, wholesome and nutritious.
  • Consumers can choose from a variety of safe and wholesome beef.
  • Cattlemen’s production methods are proven effective in producing the safe, quality beef products consumers demand.
  • USDA has had a testing program for E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef since 1994.
  • USDA’s standardized testing program, in combination with safety intervention methods and strict process controls, decrease the possibility of pathogen presence. FSIS data show that between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of positive E. coli O157:H7 samples declined more than 80%.

Source: NCBA, USDA

Walking Points

  • The producer investment in safety has resulted in effective, proven strategies that combat E. coli at the harvest level, but industry and government agencies continue to work to develop effective pre-harvest interventions.
  • As a foundation for any good operation, producers should always follow the basic principles of Beef Quality Assurance, which include clean feed, clean water, appropriately drained and maintained environments, and relative freedom from pests such as biting insects.
  • You can see more guidelines and obtain information on getting certified under your state’s Beef Quality Assurance Program at www.bqa.org.
  • Follow proper on-farm biosecurity measures at all times.

Source: NCBA