A Century of Food Safety Gives Us A Glimpse Into The Future


Over the past Century, the ways in which our food has been grown, manufactured, distributed and regulated have changed dramatically.  There have been countless changes in food science and technology and the consumer preferences that drive them.  Food safety awareness has now been elevated to its highest level during the history of our nation.  And, as we begin to ask ourselves what the next 100 years will bring, we would be well served to allow the last 100 years serve as our guide.

Where has the meat industry been?

A little over 100 years ago, with advances in technology, the food industry began better understand how to make food more accessible on a much larger scale.  With improved preservation techniques and the emergence of rapid transnational shipping, food processors could for the first time in our nation’s history produce and viably ship perishable products anywhere in the country.

At that time, however, the food industry was primarily regulated at the local level.  In particular, the laws defining what constituted “adulteration” or “misbranding” were determined, if at all, by each individual state.   As can be expected within a growing nation, however, industrial advances began to outpace the inherent limits of these local and non-uniform regulations. 

In many cases, what was forbidden in one state was entirely lawful in another.  Without a federal approach to food safety (and a single set of rules), there was no way to provide consumers with any confidence in the origins or safety of their food.

Advances outside of the food industry inspired substantial change as well.  With the creation of newspapers that for the first time reached across the country, individuals and consumer groups had the opportunity to voice their concerns.  Social reformers, who otherwise would have remained unheard, were also able for the first time to reach a broad audience.  The most famous example of these was Upton Sinclair, a man whose work ultimately led to the creation of the complex laws under which we operate today.  Indeed, in his 1906 novel, The Jungle, Sinclair described in gruesome the unsanitary conditions prevalent in large meat slaughter plants.  The book described unwholesome carcasses being processed for use in food, processing taking place in unhealthy conditions, and meat and other food products coming into contact with contaminants present in the plants.

These conditions outraged the public, and the United States Congress quickly realized that a uniform food safety policy (i.e., a single set of rules) was essential to protect the health of the nation.  In 1906, Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Acts.  This law for the first time mandated that federal inspectors be assigned to and present in beef slaughter and processing establishments, and continues to form the framework for the national food safety laws that continue to exist to this day.

Where is the meat industry today?

As any involved in the industry knows, beef regulation has moved from the old organoleptic-based inspection system embraced in 1906 (sight, smell and touch) to a food safety system which relies heavily on science and microbiology. In the 1990s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began requiring that all meat and poultry processors adopt Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (“HACCP”) plans.  Although this represented a revolutionary change in the way food was regulated, it industry was able to successfully implement HACCP in thousands of plants in only a few years.

In the years since it was implemented, there can be little doubt that HACCP has been incredibly effective in improving the safety of our food supply.  Indeed, in the last few years, there has been a drastic downward trend in the number and scope of recalls involving the presence of pathogens.  Moreover, in 2011, recognizing the success of HACCP in the meat industry, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (“FSMA”).  The Act will eventually require all FDA-regulated food companies to adopt and follow written food safety plans using the HACCP methodology.

Food product testing has advanced considerably in recent years.  Food companies now understand that if their food products are contaminated with pathogens when they leave the company’s control, there is in increased likelihood that those contaminants will be found. Indeed, more and more food processors are now sampling incoming raw materials and finished products before using or selling them. Additionally, companies also recognize that if any existing contamination is not detected through product testing, there is a good chance that it will be found (if someone gets sick) by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  Indeed, foodborne illness and outbreak surveillance has become so robust in recent years that if a food causes a foodborne illness or cluster, CDC and USDA investigators will in most cases be able to trace the offending product back to the company from which it originated.

In recent years, the media has also played a substantial role in increasing the overall quality and safety of our food. With more companies testing for pathogens, more pathogens are being found and more products are being recalled.  In turn, through its reporting on outbreaks and recalls, the media has played a significant role in raising the overall awareness of food safety among U.S. consumers.  In turn, U.S. consumers are now paying far more attention now to the origin, quality and safety of the food products they buy and eat.  These trends will continue.

Where will the industry be tomorrow?

If the past 100 years provides any glimpse into what the future holds for the food industry, the industry will likely be confronted with even greater change.   Reserving my own judgment, I firmly believe that we are moving as a nation toward a day when pathogens in all food products are fully controlled – as a matter of course.  Consumer expectations have changed drastically over the last 100 years, and those expectations will continue to evolve.  As consumers continue to read about large-scale food product recalls on the internet, and continue to watch stories about the human consequences of outbreaks on the news, Congress and USDA will continue to be pressed by consumers and the media to respond.  

This pressure from consumers and the media will not decrease in the future and will continue to shape food safety policy.   Whether we agree with it or not, we will reach a day in the future when consumers will no longer allow industry to sell raw animal products that carry a risk of making them sick.   As interventions continue to advance, industry will respond by finding new ways to ensure that raw animal (and other) products are pathogen free.   Although this change cannot and will not happen overnight, I do believe that this change will come.

In the meantime, continue to do an outstanding job safely feeding a nation.  Your work is important, and your contributions should be recognized.  Take exceptional pride in what this amazing industry has accomplished over the decades, and know this -- just like it did during the last 100 years, the beef industry will continue to lead the way.   Here too, history continues to be our guide.  The West wasn’t won on salads, after all.  The West was won on beef.

USDA Launches Toll-Free Help Line For Small Processors

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) has announced the creation of a new help-desk, providing operators of small meat, poultry and egg processing establishments with access to knowledgeable specialists who can help them understand USDA directives, regulations and other information. The help-desk also will provide direct assistance to state and local food regulatory agencies.

"The FSIS is committed to providing assistance to businesses of all sizes that provide American consumers with access to a safe and healthy food supply," said Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Jerold R. Mande. "The small plant help-desk will help the development of small, local producers by offering a one-stop shop for questions about how to make sure their meat, poultry and processed egg products are safe, wholesome and properly labeled."

The new help-desk will support USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative by helping small processors to reduce the time and expense of dealing with agency requirements. "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" is designed to continue the national conversation about developing local and regional food systems and finding ways to support small and mid-sized producers. It emphasizes the need for a fundamental and critical reconnection between producers and consumers, building on the 2008 Farm Bill, which provides additional flexibility for USDA programs to promote local foods. More information on the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative can be found at: www.usda.gov/knowyourfarmer.

The FSIS small plant help-desk will serve as a "one-stop shop" for plant owners and operators with questions. More than 90% of the 6,000 plants inspected by FSIS are small or very small. FSIS staff will assess callers' requests and provide information and guidance materials that best meet their needs. In situations where the answer is not readily available, the staff will research the issue and follow-up with the caller. As appropriate, the help-desk will provide a portal to other services, such as AskFSIS, FSIS' existing service offering agency responses to inquiries on agency policy.

Inquiries can be made to the small plant help-desk by toll-free telephone or by email. The help-desk is open from 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday, excluding Federal holidays. To speak to a staff specialist during this time, call 1-877-FSISHelp (1-877-374-7435). You may also contact the help-desk by email at InfoSource@fsis.usda.gov.

New Rules May Allow State-Inspected Meat And Poultry To Be Shipped Over State Lines

The USDA has published new rules for a proposed program, under which select State-inspected establishments (with 25 or fewer employees) will be eligible to ship meat and poultry products in interstate commerce. Click on the following link to view the Proposed Rule.

The new program was created as part of the 2008 Farm Bill to supplement the existing Federal-State cooperative inspection program to allow State-inspected plants with 25 or fewer employees to ship products across State lines. This announcement is part of the USDA's new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, which seeks to better connect consumers with local producers to help develop local and regional food systems to spur economic opportunity.

"This new cooperative interstate shipment program will provide new economic opportunities for many small and very small meat and poultry establishments, whose markets are currently limited," said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Jerold Mande. "We can provide new markets for these establishments, while maintaining the integrity of the Federal mark of inspection."

Currently, 27 states operate State Inspection Programs for meat and poultry, and FSIS verifies that the State programs are implementing requirements that are "at least equal to" those imposed under the Federal meat and poultry products inspection acts. Click on the following link to view the Current List of Qualifying States. For these programs, FSIS provides up to 50 percent of the State's operating funds and provides oversight and enforcement of the program.

Under the proposed rule, selected establishments will receive inspection services from federally trained and/or supervised State inspection personnel who will verify that the establishments meet all Federal food safety requirements. Meat and poultry products produced under the voluntary cooperative program will bear an official USDA mark of inspection, thereby enabling interstate shipment of the products.

State-inspected establishments that are not selected for the voluntary cooperative program, including state-inspected establishments with more than 25 employees, are only eligible to sell and ship their products within their State.

Comments must be received on or before Monday, November 16, 2009, through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov, by mail to: FSIS Docket Room, USDA, FSIS, OPPD, Docket Clearance Unit, 5601 Sunnyside Avenue, Stop 5272, Beltsville, MD 20705.

All comments must identify FSIS and the docket number FSIS-2008-0039. Once received and published, interested parties will be able to View All Comments Online.

What's On USDA's Plate? A Snapshot Of Current Policy Thinking

At a recent conference focused on the prevention of E. coli, the USDA came prepared to comment on its current thinking relating to new and emerging policy initiatives. In turn, Dan Engeljohn (Deputy Assistant Administrator of the FSIS Office of Policy and Program Development) offered a number of pointed observations.

In cases involving a further processor which commingles raw materials from multiple suppliers, it can sometimes be difficult to trace the source of a subsequent outbreak to a single supplier. As a result, Engeljohn explained that the USDA is currently analyzing the merits of using the internal microbiological testing data generated by a further processor of product testing positive for pathogens to help the agency trace the pathogen back to the originating slaughter facility.

With respect to slaughter facilities themselves, Engeljohn also announced that the USDA may issue criteria for assessing prudent "high event day determinations.” Although the USDA concedes that 100 percent testing at any large slaughter operation would likely produce at least some positives during any given day of production, Engeljohn noted further that a large number of positives in a short period of time could potentially be a red flag.

Engeljohn also confirmed that the USDA is continuing its work on validating the methodology for testing and identifying non-O157 Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli (STECS), from six serogroups (O26, O103, O111, O121, O45 and O145), in FSIS samples. Once sufficient baseline data can be collected and assessed, the agency will likely make a determination whether to classify any of these pathogens as adulterants in raw ground product. In addition, although whole-intact cuts of beef containing E. coli O157:H7 are not considered adulterated under current law, Engeljohn suggested that USDA is continuing to consider whether it may someday modify this standard.

Moving forward, we will, of course, continue to report on new and emerging developments.

No Bones About It - Meat Is Good For Your Health

For many of us, there is nothing better than the first bite of a delicious steak. Whether it is a sirloin, tenderloin, or perhaps grill-fired New York Strips shared with family and friends, there is a lot to be said for a good cut of beef.

This also, however, raises an important question. Beyond tasting delicious, to what extent is meat really an integral part of a healthy diet?

Many Vegetarians assert that among other things, living as a Vegetarian improves health. An Australian-Vietnamese study published in the July 2 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, however, disputes this concept. The research has shown that Vegetarians can have as much as a 5 percent lower bone density than individuals who consume meat. Vegans are potentially worse off, at 6 percent.

The Mayo-Clinic states that a vegetarian lifestyle can lead to a number of necessary vitamin deficiencies. They include:

  • Protein. Your body needs protein to maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs. Vegetarians who eat eggs or dairy products have convenient sources of protein. Other sources of protein include soy products, meat substitutes, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
  • Calcium. This mineral helps build and maintain strong teeth and bones. Low-fat dairy foods and dark green vegetables, such as spinach, turnip and collard greens, kale, and broccoli, are good sources of calcium. Tofu enriched with calcium and fortified soy milk and fruit juices are other options.
  • Vitamin B-12. Your body needs vitamin B-12 to produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. This vitamin is found almost exclusively in animal products, including milk, eggs and cheese. Vegans can get vitamin B-12 from some enriched cereals, fortified soy products or by taking a supplement that contains this vitamin.
  • Iron. Like vitamin B-12, iron is a crucial component of red blood cells. Dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark leafy green vegetables, and dried fruit are good sources of iron. To help your body absorb nonanimal sources of iron, eat foods rich in vitamin C — such as strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli — at the same time you consume iron-containing foods.
  • Zinc. This mineral is an essential component of many enzymes and plays a role in cell division and in the formation of proteins. Good sources of zinc include whole grains, soy products, nuts and wheat germ.

Although most of these vitamins can be replenished by taking supplements and eating things like tofu-dogs, cod liver oil and soy burgers, it does seem like a lot of work.

So, as delicious as a lentil wrapped wheat germ biscuit may be, rest assured that a delicious, perfectly cooked steak with some garlic butter, red potatoes and a glass of cold milk will, indeed, do wonders for your health.

Ugg. Undercooked Meat Is Bad. Overcooked, It Might Cause Cancer

Once again, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. While consumers are continuously reminded to cook their meat thoroughly before sitting down for dinner, the results of a new study suggest that grilling your filet until it resembles a hockey puck could have deadly consequences as well. The study links consumption of burned or charred pieces of meat to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Kristin Anderson, an epidemiologist with the School of Public Health, at the University of Minnesota, was recently quoted as saying that "we’re still trying to understand how this works." She said it’s been known for some time that particular carcinogens exist in meat, as they do in many other foods, "but the question is what causes them to react and how that’s relevant in meat."

The study, which Anderson presented at the recent meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, and which was based on a prospective analysis that included more than 62,500 participants, linked the increased risk of pancreatic cancer to consumption of meats that had been well-cooked, or over-cooked by frying, grilling or barbecuing. At the meeting, Anderson told her colleagues that her research “has been focused on pancreatic cancer for some time, and we want to identify ways to prevent the cancer because treatments are very limited and the cancer is often fatal."

Data was gathered over nine years. According to the research, subjects who preferred very well-done steak were almost 60 percent more likely to get pancreatic cancer than those who consumed their steak less well-done or who didn’t eat steak at all. When overall consumption and doneness preferences were used to estimate the meat-derived carcinogen intake for subjects, respondents who had the highest intake had 70 percent higher risk than those with the lowest intake.

Anderson, who also stated that her husband "has a big Weber grill in the backyard," said the study has generated a lot of interest, mostly "because people relate to meat." Several of her colleagues, she added, have told her she "had taken all the fun away."

And truly, there is certainly a lot of fun to be had in eating a piece of charcoal. I do wonder, however, whether we should really be looking deeper into the issue. Who are these people, and does their increased cancer risk really correlate to the fact that they like burnt meat?

Any individual who actually enjoys eating charred black crunch is most likely lacking taste in other ways as well. Let’s be honest, someone who can’t distinguish a difference in quality between ash and viably edible meat is apt to demonstrate poor judgment across the board. One can only assume that the burnt meat crowd is composed of the same individuals who shamelessly consume cheap booze, chain smoke, live near power lines, stand near the microwave, use artificial sweeteners, get x-rays, or, for those who live in Los Angeles; breathe.

Science also tells us that, across the biological spectrum, Darwinian law mandates the culling of the weak, so that only the strongest and most adaptable can survive and replicate over the millennia. So, it should come as no surprise then that people who actually enjoy incinerated meat (and the carcinogenic byproducts which are created when you burn ANY food beyond recognition) would have an increased likelihood of becoming gravely ill.

Thus, in a John Maddenesque delivery of wisdom and insight, Anderson concludes we would all be better off (and, frankly, more likely to enjoy our steak) if we would simply "Lower the temperature. Use indirect heat. Wrap meat in foil. Use marinades, and cut off the charred parts.” And, “you can cook food thoroughly,” Anderson urges, “without burning it."

So, will I heed Anderson’s advice? Probably. But, I also remain quite hopeful that, in coming years, with more studies and additional research, we will be better able to distinguish the absolute cancer risk between those sophisticated enough to eat steak the way it was meant to be served, and those who prefer a good beer, a shot of whiskey, and chunk of blackened meat cooked (well beyond recognition) over an open fire...