“Consumers remember recalls,” said Jacque Matsen, director of reputation management for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, during a presentation at the 2009 Beef Industry Safety Summit held earlier this year.

To gain a better understanding of how safety issues impact demand, NCBA, on behalf of the Beef Checkoff Program, conducted research that shows 20 percent of consumers may drastically reduce their beef purchases because of perceived safety issues. “A 10 percent increase in beef recalls leads to a 0.2 percent decline in demand,” Matsen said. “From 2006 to 2007, recalls increased from 18 to 38 and retail demand dropped 2.6 percent.”

These are statistics that the industry can’t ignore, and as a result, there have been continuing efforts to improve beef safety. Beef producers, through the checkoff, have invested more than $27 million since 1993 in beef safety research, and the industry as a whole invests $350 million annually on safety interventions at the processing level, according to Michelle Rossman, director of beef safety research for NCBA.

Most of the work, historically, has focused on the harvest and processing sectors, and for good reason. This is the bottleneck in beef production where potential carcass contamination might occur. Harvest facilities currently incorporate a wide variety of interventions such as steam vacuums, carcass wash cabinets and steam pasteurization, in what is commonly referred to as a “multiple hurdle” approach to reduce or eliminate bacterial pathogens including E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. Most of the development and validation research for many of these technologies was funded through the checkoff. 

What is becoming apparent is that there are instances when even the best plant interventions may be overwhelmed. Researchers have identified that within cattle populations there are certain animals that can be termed “supershedders.” These individuals shed higher than average amounts of pathogenic bacteria, which can subsequently contaminate pen mates or other cattle with which they are comingled immediately before harvest. Additionally, during the summer months, the level of pathogens shed by cattle increases, so finding ways to reduce colonization and subsequent shedding during this time of year is also critical to improving safety.

“If you look at the dramatic drop in E. coli O157:H7 foodborne illnesses that occurred earlier in this decade, it happened not long after the implementation of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point inspection and shortly after the beef industry made a commitment to make safety a non-competitive issue,” says Richard Raymond, former undersecretary of agriculture for food safety. “Unfortunately, we seem to have reached a plateau in reducing pathogen loads. There has been a lot of debate as to the reasons behind this, but one concern is that our in-plant interventions sometimes reach an overload point. We need another injection of energy to make further progress.”

E. coli and other foodborne pathogens are ubiquitous within production environments. However, if the industry can identify methods to reduce their concentration in live cattle, then in-plant safety interventions can continue to effectively handle the amount of bacteria that may be present on a carcass.

Pre-harvest safety interventions have, as a result, become a key focus area for the beef safety program funded through the checkoff. “Any negative effects on consumer confidence caused by safety issues affects everyone involved in the beef chain,” Rossman says. “Technological advances that can be used in production systems to minimize the risks of foodborne illnesses linked to beef are a positive step for the entire industry.” 

Earlier this year, Epitopix LLC received a conditional license for an E. coli O157 vaccine for cattle. The new vaccine is labeled to reduce the prevalence of the E. coli O157 carrier state and for reduction in the amount of E. coli O157 shed in feces to minimize exposure and infection of herd mates.

“This represents a significant breakthrough in the beef industry’s on-going effort to reduce E. coli O157,” said Jim Sandstrom, general manager for Epitopix, at the Beef Industry Safety Summit last April.  

Although the product license is conditional while additional efficacy studies are completed, USDA approval allows Epitopix to make the vaccine immediately available for use by the beef industry.

Another E. colii vaccine developed by Canadian-based Bioniche Life Sciences Inc. has already been fully licensed in Canada under the trade name Econiche and, according to Gary Weber, president for the Bioniche U.S. food safety division, is close to being approved for conditional use within this country.

Getting to that stage has been a long road, though. “Our first proof of concept papers were published in 2001, and field studies began in 2002,” Weber says. “Our company has invested approximately $20 million in development, and that has been combined with additional resources from the Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service, the University of Nebraska and the checkoff.”

Getting this technology and other pre-harvest interventions approved for use has been challenging, as the concept of using production-level technology for food safety goals is a new paradigm for regulatory agencies. “We need more tools to enhance beef safety,” Raymond says. “Whether it’s pre-harvest interventions such as an E. coli vaccine or low-dose irradiation for carcasses, it’s important to continue to research and develop interventions that can be used in addition to existing safety technologies.”

Sharing the burden

Research conducted by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station found that 80 percent of consumers believe the number of recalls has been increasing. That perception has prompted many policy makers to claim that the food inspection system is “broken.”

“We all know that food safety has been in the news, and because of that publicity a common refrain heard in Washington and other venues is that the U.S. food safety regulatory system is broken and has failed the American people,” said Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, in testimony he gave before the House Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry in April.

Boyle told the subcommittee that both pathogenic bacteria on meat and poultry products and associated foodborne illnesses have declined markedly in the last decade. Since 2000, the industry has reduced the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef by 45 percent to less than 0.5 percent.  Similar improvements in the incidence of foodborne illness have also been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, since 2000, illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7 are down 40 percent.

Further, CDC data show that illnesses from pathogens most commonly associated with meat and poultry comprise a fraction of the total foodborne illnesses and deaths in the United States.

Over the years, various public officials have introduced the idea of a single food safety agency. Even current Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack is reportedly in favor of such an idea, based on media coverage in February. Meat industry groups have come out strongly against this and similar proposals, saying that the USDA Food Safety Inspection System that oversees meat and poultry products is much more robust than the current Food and Drug Administration system that oversees inspection for other foods. 

Nevertheless, regulatory issues can be daunting for beef slaughter facilities and processors. Additionally, even when one company experiences a recall, it can have damaging effects on the reputation of the entire beef industry. As a result, the industry took a very proactive approach, initially in response to E. coli O157:H7, and decided that beef safety should be a non-competitive issue. Beginning in 2003, the first Beef Industry Safety Summit was held. This annual meeting, which is coordinated by the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, has become a forum where open communication occurs about the best safety strategies for the industry. No media and no government officials are invited, and as a result, participants freely exchange information.

“There is no other model like this in the food industry where there is no veil of secrecy about what competitors are doing when it comes to food safety,” says Tim Biela, vice president for food safety and quality assurance for American Foodservice Corporation and a founding member of BIFSCo. “For the beef industry, safety has become a non-competitive issue, and as a result, everyone benefits.”

Those efforts have been applauded by regulators, including former undersecretary Raymond. “The noncompetitive sharing of best practices that the beef industry initiated has become a model that other commodities and food industries should emulate.”