A conversation with Dr. Jim Marsden about the safety of beef

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Are you old enough to remember these TV commercials in the 80’s?  “When E.F. Hutton Talks, People Listen.” They always took place in a crowded, noisy room. E.F. Hutton would lean forward to speak softly with someone and the room would immediately become quiet as everyone strained to hear what he was saying. In every industry there are certain heavyweights who fit into that same commercial description. No matter what the chatter might be, their words will be heard above the racket.

When it comes to food safety, the E. F. Hutton of the beef business is Dr. James Marsden of Kansas State University. One of the most well-known people in the beef industry, Marsden’s research has led to many of the major breakthroughs in meat safety and has earned him a reputation as one of the nation's foremost food safety experts.

He is the author of some 100 publications and presentations in food safety, public health, meat science, processed meat technology and microbiology. He is the senior science adviser for the North American Meat Association and is a member of the Institute of Food Technologists, the American Society for Microbiology, the American Meat Science Association, the American Society for Quality Control and the American Society of Animal Science.

His work takes him around the world where he’s often invited to speak at major industry functions or to consult with food processing companies. Tracking him down for this interview took a few e-mailed requests, half a dozen phone calls and finally a voice-to-voice connection via Skype when I finally found him in France. 

Q. Jim, let’s start by going back to 1993 and the Jack in the Box recall. The beef industry was caught unaware of the devastating potential of E. coli.  How far has it come in the past 20 years?

I was heavily involved with the American Meat Institute at the time. We were already looking at methodologies to fight E. coli O157-H7 at the time. Jack in the Box immediately changed everything for a number of reasons. Four children died, and a number of people were sickened by the outbreak. The enormity of it got tremendous national coverage. It was a wakeup call for the entire industry.

Shortly after the Jack in the Box outbreak, Michael Taylor made an announcement that astounded the industry: O157 would be considered an adulterant in raw ground beef.  Up to that point pathogens were considered naturally occurring. It was a huge change in USDA policy and AMI took them to court to try to block that policy. They lost badly.


(Editor’s note: Michael Taylor had just been appointed FSIS administrator when he stepped in front of an AMI Convention crowd in San Francisco and said, “In one critical respect, our inspection program at FSIS does not currently meet the public expectation. There is a gap in our system…

“The fact is we do not deal directly enough and scientifically enough with the microbial pathogens that can make people sick,” he continued, before outlining some sweeping public health goals. And then he got very specific.

“To clarify an important legal point, we consider raw ground beef that is contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 to be adulterated within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.”)

It (the court decision) left the industry with no choice but to focus on solutions and it happened almost immediately at the time there were few interventions available. That’s all changed now. Beef carcasses are exposed to multiple interventions throughout the slaughter process that greatly reduce the instances of contamination on the surfaces of carcasses, and plants are cleaner and more sanitary. There are additional interventions downstream that further reduce the risk of contamination.

In 1993 there was essentially no testing for O157. Today, beef is tested extensively. We have the N-60 testing protocol that calls for a much more frequent testing protocol. Testing is not perfect but it’s a positive development that contributes to a solution so the bottom line is the incidence of O157 in trimmings and ground beef is much lower today than it was in 1993. It is not zero – that is still a requirement from a regulatory point-of-view even if it’s a scientific impossibility. Although we have ample evidence to show the problem is not solved, it is much better. Is there evidence that the industry has made tremendous progress? Yes, but there are still residuals of the problem out there that have to be solved.

Q. How much farther does the beef industry have to go?

I believe that in order to eliminate the problem, we’re going to have to learn how to pasteurize the carcass the same way we pasteurize raw milk. It can be done with heat, by combining heat with other interventions to achieve a carcass that’s free of O157-H7 and other STECs as well. The interesting thing about carcass contamination is the underlying meat is sterile. All the contamination is on the surface and it seems to me that it’s not an impossible dream to produce a nearly sterile carcass. We have all kinds of interventions available to help us do that.  I think is just a matter of putting them together in such a way that when that carcass exits the cooler, it’s free of microbiological pathogens below the detectable point.

Q. How about pathogens other than E. coli?

Listeria monocytogenes is not much of a risk. Salmonella is a growing risk, though. The problem with salmonella is that it appears to be infecting the lymph nodes of cattle and it’s impossible to remove all the lymph nodes before processing so some salmonella is getting into beef.

Q. What about consumers? What is the industry responsibility to them?

It’s kind of a hopeless thing to expect that every consumer every time is going to handle beef correctly and is going to prepare beef products perfectly. I think a greater safety net is going to have to be built into the system so that when something goes wrong – and you know it will every day – that it doesn’t result in disease. Just like past milk; take a carton of milk and if you leave it in your car, certainly the milk will go bad but you’re not going to have a disease outbreak. 

We have to assume as packers and processors that somewhere along the line between shipment and consumption that something is going to screw up and not just in cooking.  Cross contamination happens, too. It’s too much to expect that it’s always going to be perfect. It just isn’t going to happen.

Q. We’re importing more and more of our food. How do we manage the safety of imported foods?

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is working hard to standardize food safety practices between nations, especially for foods that are exported. GFSI is an organization formed by retailers that is putting pressure on food producers around the world to improve their food safety rules and regulations.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will require that foods exported to the US will have to be processed to the exact same standards as the U.S. plants follow. They will have to have written food safety plans, they will have to have validated interventions. It will be a night-and-day difference around the world when those plans take effect. I know FSMA is already past due but FDA has recently formulated plans to move forward and they’re moving quickly. It should be in effect within a year or so.

Q. There are a lot of new interventions being introduced. What techniques look like they have the most promise?

The solution is really to use a combination of staged interventions so that the industry is relying on more than one. If you’re using organic acids – there are three or four acids available – you need to add other interventions. In my opinion, whenever possible, adding a thermal intervention is critical – hot water or steam. It is an essential foundation when possible. Combine those two with some form of oxidative technology – it could be a UV-based technology that produces oxidative gasses or something like Sanova or some other oxidative technology. Thermal – several organic acids, UV – staged interventions that rely on those three are helpful.

High Pressure Pasteurization is another technology which is applied to finished packaging.  Ground beef patties can be treated with HPP and pathogens can be almost completely eliminated. It’s a little difficult: it’s expensive, very-high tech, but it can be done.

Q. Has the beef industry shouldered its responsibility?

The beef industry takes a lot of criticism. They have for at least 20 years and it’s unfortunate. You have a situation where beef producers, packers and further processors are working together to solve these problems. Beef checkoff has spent I don’t know how many millions of dollars to help solve the problems since Jack in the Box. They’ve been consistent, too, funding research every year. Packers have spent countless millions. Further processors have also spent millions. There has been a tremendous effort across the industry to solve this problem.

This is an industry that used to be quite fragmented among those three segments and some of it still exists. When it comes to food safety, though, fragmentation doesn’t exist and I think it’s going to help solve the problem.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food industry journalist and columnist.


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