War heating up on food-borne pathogens

Despite the upsurge in recalls, evidence shows that the government's meat/poultry inspection system has reduced pathogens in meat and poultry products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

Also despite more meat/poultry food recalls in 2000 than any year since 1993, the incidence of some common food-borne illnesses appears to be down, the Centers for Disease Control says.

And the National Technical Information Service says, despite food-borne disease still posing "a continual, significant threat to public health," the nation still "has one of the safest food supplies in the world."

The message seems clear: Regardless of the science and technology and safety regulations, food-borne diseases pose a constant threat, and consumers should always be vigilant and careful buyers, handlers, preparers and cooks of all meat and poultry products.

The industry, the government and others say more can be done to ease consumers' fears.

But Seattle lawyer William Marler is going where few industry folk care to tread. He's promoting the idea of mandatory testing to clear all meats for the consumer's table. Marler, a food-safety lawsuit specialist, advocates requiring completed tests before any meat can be shipped.

His push comes as the USDA claims its revamped meat/poultry-inspection system is garnering new levels of product safety. It's reducing pathogens on products, says Chris Church, a spokesperson for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

"Just the fact that recalls are up isn't necessarily an indicator of overall food safety," Church said. "We're doing a better job of detecting it (food-borne disease) in the food supply."

He cited advancements in science, enhanced testing technology and recall procedural efficiencies and much larger sample sizes making the testing for tainted foods a far more exact and effective process over just the last two years.

The American Meat Institute says the size of meat samples for testing has been increased more than tenfold, to more than 300 grams, which makes the chances of finding a microscopic pathogen much more likely.

Meat industry experts and the AMI point out that bacteria or other food-borne pathogens can easily be isolated in a tiny portion of a load or batch and thereby escape detection in the sampling/testing process. Likewise, the detection of a pathogen in one sample is not a good indicator of how safe the entire load may be, based on statistical margins of error.

Scheduled but normally random testing for microbes in meat and poultry samples is a relatively new tool for the FSIS. It is an additional tool to the old eyeball-and-sniff inspection method in livestock slaughter and meat/poultry processing plants. Both these and other tools are in the agency's new food hazard-prevention approach to inspecting plants, machinery and products. It relies more heavily on putting food-safety chores, responsibilities and liabilities on the producers.

Testing moves from random to targeted measures if a pathogen, sanitation violation or other food-safety hazard is detected.

If the USDA/FSIS suspects that a sample is tainted, the USDA can withdraw its inspection service, leaving the products without the USDA inspection mark, said Church. "That product is held."

The process does not require shipments to be delayed for routine test results, but many meat/poultry companies follow that practice, he said.

"If a processor could store their raw ground product after every test, they would," says Jeremy Russell, communications manager for the National Meat Association.

When possible to delay shipping without damage to quality or creating a safety hazard, the incentive is there to do it because recalls are costly to operations and costlier to reputations, Russell said.

But under normal conditions, delaying shipments of fresh raw meats and poultry is an expensive logistical nightmare that can increase the health hazards, not reduce them, meat industry sources said.

Globalization and the explosion of retail chains haven't helped, by adding many more food handlers before the food is eaten.

"As the food supply and distribution system continues to become increasingly global, monitoring the safety of the food supply has greatlyincreased in complexity," says the National Technical Information Service, the federal government's central source for scientific, technical, engineering and related business information produced by or for the U.S. government.

Also not helping is Mother Nature. While surveys show that the incidence of salmonella and some other food-borne illnesses appear to be declining, the rates for some others - including E. coli - appear to be increasing, said Tom Skinner, press officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"We're seeing some progress," Skinner said, adding that a few larger outbreaks have exaggerated the statistics.

The CDC still estimates that food-borne diseases cause about 76 million human illnesses, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, annually.

The government says reducing those statistics is growing more complex for many reasons, including:

  • About 80 percent of the food-borne illnesses derive from unknown origins, not least of which is probably consumers mishandling fresh foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables are similarly vulnerable, and seafoods are more vulnerable.
  •  Even as food-safety efforts improve, nature develops some new strains of food-borne pathogens.

New products are flooding the market while consumer demand is rising worldwide for few if any preservatives and for more fresh, less-processed or all-natural products, and often easier targets for pathogens.

By Worth Wren JR., StoreAlliance.com Staff Writer

This is the second part of a three-part series. To view part one, click here. To view the final part, click here.