Science and law have a lot in common.
They are both quite technical, typically managed by people (scientists and lawyers) who over-complicate everything, are both expensive, and are constantly evolving. It is no surprise, then, that the law and the science of food safety have proven in recent history to be exceedingly complex, overly complicated, and in most cases downright costly. They have also evolved drastically.
Only a short time ago, consumers, compliance officers, and courts seemed to appreciate the fact that, in most cases, raw animal products could not be rendered sterile. They also understood that, despite best efforts, industry could not guarantee that these products would be pathogen free. But, when viewed through ever-evolving legal and scientific lenses, expectations have changed.
With respect to the law, USDA first announced in 1994 that E. coli O157:H7 was an adulterant in ground beef, but has in more recent years expanded its “zero tolerance” standard to additional pathogens and additional products. Put simply, more pathogens (from Salmonella to non-O157 STECs) are now being formally and informally declared adulterants in more and more foods.
Science, of course, has evolved as well. Every day, new detection methods are developed, designed to find harmful pathogens with ever-increasing speed and sensitivity. As we all know, the more we test, the more we find. In turn, more positive results will lead to more recalls. This year alone, there have been more than 10 million pounds of meat products recalled for the presence of suspected pathogens.
The broader lesson, which is most often overlooked, is that when recalls are announced, they drive a broadening expectation among consumers that food can and should always be sterile. Indeed, when the USDA reports that an animal product is being recalled for pathogens that “may” be present, the agency is really sending a message that any animal products not being recalled are bacteria-free.
So, what does any of this this have to do with greener pasteurs?
Well, it’s the somewhat novel concept of pasteurization in the meat industry. Having watched the law and science of food safety evolve over the last decade, I am convinced that in coming years consumers will increasingly demand that the raw foods they eat will be more natural, more wholesome and more safe. In turn, I believe that consumers will increasingly expect (and that the market will increasingly demand) that raw products in every instance be rendered pathogen free.
Food safety shouldn’t create a competitive advantage, but as technology improves, the law crystalizes and consumer expectations evolve, companies will increasingly distinguish themselves by the quality and safety of their products. Whether through the use of irradiation on the kill floor, oxidative gasses in beef coolers or other emerging technologies (many of which are being developed), forward-thinking companies should begin embracing these trends and investigating solutions.
While the ability to guarantee a pathogen-free carcass will be good business, it may also, at long last, be only a pasteur away.