Beef safety is now focusing on pre-harvest procedures

Jun 19, 2009
by WLJ
Beef safety is now focusing on pre-harvest procedures

Beef recalls and other food safety events can put a poor light on the beef industry, not to mention its products and its animals. While great strides have been made to reduce pathogens at the post-harvest level, the opportunity for producers to influence pathogen levels has been limited. That will soon change.

Pre-harvest interventions to reduce pathogens in the beef supply and in other foods are on their way, and cattlemen can help determine what role they will play in further improving consumer confidence in food safety. Thanks in part to investments by the Beef Checkoff Program, vaccines, feed additives and other methods of pathogen reduction at the pre-harvest stage have been researched to make organisms such as E. coli O157:H7 an even greater rarity for consumers.

Managed by the Research, Education and Innovation Department at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), cattlemenfunded pre-harvest research efforts began in 2002, with the $1-per-head checkoff fund used to gain a better understanding of the ecology and epidemiology of pathogens in the pre-harvest environment. This information is helping guide the development of focused pre-harvest interventions, according to Michelle Rossman, NCBA director of beef safety research.

Among the checkoff-funded research projects on preharvest pathogen reduction have been validation and evaluation of E. coli vaccines, investigation of feeding cattle distillers grains and feed additives such as sodium chlorate and Tasco, evaluation of shipping protocols, and examination of on-farm management practices.

Helping to disseminate data and acting as an advo cate for pre-harvest solutions has been the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo), in which all beef industry segments are represented.

BIFSCo conducted its most recent Beef Industry Safety Summit in San Diego, CA, March 4-6 at which progress in every aspect of pathogen reduction was reviewed.

Identification and validation of effective pre-harvest systems is near, experts say. The hurdle, though, will be to reward the producer for addressing this very public health issue.

“That is exactly the challenge,” says Dave Smith, DVM, Ph.D., extension veterinarian at the University of Nebraska. “The big question is, do post-harvest sectors of the beef industry care about the (organism) load live cattle are carrying or not?” he asks. “If it doesn’t translate to dollars to pay for pre-harvest interventions, I think we will have our answer.”

Some vaccines are expected to initially cost $2-$3 a dose, with two doses needed to be effective, according to Gary Weber, Ph.D., president of Bioniche Food Safety USA. While the industry “cannot avoid the issue,” Weber says, “producers don’t yet see a return on investment in the near term.” Compounding the issue, it isn’t just the safety of beef that will be an issue for beef producers. Weber says producers should also look beyond their products for potential liabilities.

“E. coli O157 is not just a beef safety issue,” Weber says. “It also affects produce growing regions of the United States, fairs and expositions, and in some cases, the safety of water resources. The beef industry may well face costly regulations to reduce these risks.”

Closing in on answers

But it would make little sense for most individual producers to contemplate usage of vaccines or other pathogen-reduction methods to address food safety, according to Smith. “It’s really a waste of money for an individual if everyone is not doing it,” he says. Smith believes it will take an industry-wide commitment to get the maximum benefit from implementing the innovations.

“Interventions are like little dams in a river,” says Smith. “And you can’t build a dam only part of the way across. If they become the industry standard, we can have an impact.”

Harvest facilities already spend millions of dollars on interventions proven to create “dams” to reduce pathogens. Research on many of these interventions was funded in part by producers through their Beef Checkoff Program. According to Angie Siemens, Ph.D., vice president for technical services at Cargill, if pre-harvest interventions are effective, plant interventions still won’t go away. “Once adopted, it is very difficult to explain any decision to eliminate interventions in a way that consumers and regulators understand,” Siemens says. Adding pre-harvest interventions to the mix, though, could potentially reduce the need to expand plant interventions and testing.

More importantly, it could bring the industry to a new level of food safety performance. Bioniche’s Weber believes that “having pre-harvest interventions will take a significant burden off the plants.” Besides, he says, producers already help pay for the industry’s pathogen intervention costs through the price they’re paid for their animals.

Smith estimates pre-harvest interventions will eventually make summer shedding of organisms—usually the highest levels of the year—closer to shedding levels now seen during the winter months. Harvest processors would consider this significant, he says. “We don’t have a constant flow (of organisms),” Smith says. “Every once in a while, we’ll get more organisms flowing over the dams we have in place. More interventions make it less likely for organisms to spill over.”

“We’re getting closer to the answers on pre-harvest interventions,” says Cargill’s Siemens. “But there’s still a considerable amount we don’t know.” Siemens also believes more research work in this area needs to be funded.

“We’re getting to the point where harvest interventions are so sophisticated, changes can only bring incremental improvements in food safety,” she says.

Early adopters

Producers with the greatest stake in the end product will inevitably be the first to introduce the new technologies into their operations. To that end, early adopters of the pre-harvest interventions will probably be suppliers to branded beef products and those companies with integrated systems that reach consumers. “If we were a vertically integrated industry, this would not be an issue,” according to Smith.

John Butler, chief executive officer of the Beef Marketing Group, agrees. “We look at [food safety efforts] as providing a competitive advantage,” according to Butler. While doing those things that address food safety carry significant costs and provide no monetary reward at this point, “it does give us an opportunity for differentiation and market access,” he says. Established in 1987, Beef Marketing Group is a cooperative made up of 15 feedlots in Kansas and Nebraska that markets half a million head of cattle annually.

Along with stringent purchasing and feeding standards, it features a comprehensive food safety system called PROGRESSIVE BEEF. The program was implemented in 2000 with a preharvest Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program focused on food safety, animal handling and welfare, sustainability and third-party audits. Beef Marketing Group has recently completed a trial of pathogen vaccines in its feedlots and is looking into their usage.

“We want to be the very best in the world at what we do,” Butler says. “And we can be a catalyst to help the industry change when nec- essary.”

Paying either way

While it will start with branded products, Smith expects interventions to eventually need to be indus- try wide. He says at some point, those at post-harvest might be willing to pay more for animals that have received treatments to reduce E. coli shedding—or could consider paying less for those that haven’t.

“Something has to send that signal that everyone has to do this,” says Smith. At this point, only the postharvest side of the industry, who face liability and government regulations dealing with food safety, feel a direct hit when E. coli O157:H7 is found in meat products. Though they have animals that shed pathogenic organisms, producers are left out of the equation. Siemens wants cattle suppliers to be “willing participants” in instituting interventions, rather than having to avoid producers that don’t. Processors realize, Siemens says, that “if involvement is going to be required, it has to be affordable and adoptable.” Siemens also believes one single type of intervention probably won’t be logical for every type of producer.

Conditional approval for a vaccine has been granted by USDA, and validation work for a compound application should be completed by the end of the year. The government has been slow in validating protocols for the use of these technologies and products, Siemens says, but “we’re getting closer and need to raise the awareness among producers” that this is on the horizon.

And economic signals for pre-harvest interventions are forming, Weber believes. “They’re out there now,” he says. “We just need to sort through them.” For instance, branded beef products are seeing the danger to their brands of beef recalls. Weber says if vaccine costs can be brought down, it will be easier to sell the idea. The government, too, might play a role in how this all plays out. “Government action is one of those things that could be on the table,” Smith says, either by investing in these interventions which have a direct impact on consumer health, or in developing regulations that push producers to do so. Producers should be part of the discussion of what their role in pathogen reduction should be, Smith says. “Are we going to use good interventions, and if so, which ones?” he asks. “And how will we use them? We need to have the mechanism for accomplishing it. “We’re not going to make [E. coli] go away, but we can reduce the probability that cattle will shed the organism,” says Smith.

“It’s the right thing to do,” says the Beef Marketing Group’s Butler. “It just makes great sense.” — WLJ