Citing the progress made in food safety research in recent years, Dr. James
Marsden of Kansas State University recently suggested to Congress ways to
streamline the evaluation of new technologies. Marsden told a congressional
committee that the approval process for new pathogen controlling technologies
would be made more efficient through the use of pilot plants.
Marsden, the Regents Distinguished Professor of Meat Science at KSU, was one of four Food Safety Consortium researchers who testified before the House Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Subcommittee. Other Consortium researchers who appeared before the committee were Dr. Randall Phebus, KSU assistant professor of food microbiology; Dr. Jim Dickson, associate professor of food science at Iowa State University, and Dr. Dennis Olson, director of the ISU Utilization Center for Agricultural Products.
Marsden traced the recent history of efforts to eliminate pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7 in meat processing. In most cases, Marsden said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, industry and academic institutions have worked together in scientific research projects to secure the necessary approval. But in some cases the cooperation has been lacking, he said.
"If a particular technology is controversial, the process moves very slowly or not at all," Marsden said. "I recommend that the process of approval could be streamlined and made less controversial if the model for evaluation of new technologies that we have adopted at Kansas State University were applied universally."
Marsden described the model as a controlled pilot plant environment in which a particular technology is validated. The meat product is inoculated with E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens. If the technology successfully eliminates the pathogens, it is verified in full-scale plant trials under normal processing conditions without inoculating the meat.
"My experience has been that when this inclusive approach is taken, support from consumer groups, labor groups and industry trade associations has helped the USDA regulatory approval process proceed smoothly," Marsden said.
The USDA announced in 1994 a new policy declaring any level of E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef to be an adulterant. That policy, in combination with the USDA policy of zero tolerance for physical defects on raw meat, has given impetus to technological advances that allow beef packers and processors to control the pathogen.
"The food safety infrastructure that includes the Food Safety Consortium, the Beef Check off Program, industry research and USDA's Agricultural Research Service is responsible for the major progress we have witnessed in addressing one of the most vexing food safety problems our nation has ever faced," Marsden said. "The problem of E. coli O157:H7 is not completely solved and other challenges are still with us, including the problem of Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry and the threat of BSE."
In recounting the progress made in food safety research regarding beef, Marsden told Congress of developments on several fronts in recent years:
- The implementation of steam pasteurization, a technology which virtually
eliminates E. coli O157:H7 from the beef carcass.
- The use of hot water, organic acids and irradiation to treat carcasses.
- The USDA's mandate of "zero tolerance" for visible physical
contamination on carcasses. The rule requires that all evidence of feces,
ingesta and milk that might contaminate the meat carcass be removed prior
to entering the holding coolers.
- The USDA's approval of steam vacuuming to remove visible contamination
from meat carcasses. KSU evaluated the process and found it effective in
removing feces and pathogenic bacteria. It is the only approved alternative
to knife trimming for removing physical contamination. Research has shown
that knife trimming often spreads any bacterial contamination.
- The development of the "multiple hurdle" approach to controlling
contamination in food processing. Marsden described the system - known popularly
as HACCP, for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points - as a series of control
points each capable of reducing microbiological contamination. "When
taken together," Marsden said, the system "results in a process
that greatly lowers the incidence of microbiological pathogens."
- The evaluation of the effects of irradiation of meats. Marsden cited research
at the University of Georgia that showed low doses of irradiation could
completely control E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and other pathogens
in raw ground beef. He also pointed out that recent research at KSU showed
that irradiation does not adversely affect the quality, flavor, aroma or
color of beef and pork products.
The technological developments listed above are each part of the HACCP process, but Marsden emphasized that they are not intended to be clean-up procedures. "In the meat and poultry industry, like the rest of the food industry, sanitation - excellent sanitation - is a minimum requirement," Marsden said. "The technologies that are being presented at this hearing are not intended to cover up for poor sanitation. They are intended to add an element of process control that would be implemented over a base that includes standard operating procedures for sanitation and good manufacturing practices addressing such issues as employee hygiene."