The Food Safety Consortium Newsletter

Vol. 10 No. 1

Winter 2000


 


A Look Back at 10 Years of the FSC
...And a Look Ahead
 
With 10 years of accomplishments behind it, the Food Safety Consortium took note of what it had done during its annual meeting in October. To mark the special occasion, the FSC met at the Shangri-La resort and convention center on Grand Lake in Oklahoma.
 
"You've done an outstanding job," said Charles Scifres, FSC coordinator, to the assembled researchers from the University of Arkansas, Iowa State University and Kansas State University. Scifres paid tribute to the founders of the FSC who began work when Congress voted in 1988 to establish the FSC.
 
Scifres reminded the audience of the initial organizational work done by Richard Forsythe of Arkansas, George Beran of Iowa State and Curtis Kastner of Kansas State. Forsythe and Beran, who are both retired, were unable to attend the meeting. Kastner was present and is still the FSC program director at Kansas State.
 
Researchers spent the two-day conference hearing presentations from FSC investigators who delivered progress reports on their current projects. Breaking from a previous practice of grouping the reports by university, the researchers brought their presentations to the conference grouped by subject area. One session covered risk assessment, education and consumer issues. Another session covered control and intervention strategies. The final session reviewed sampling protocols and methodology.
 
The researchers also heard an update on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point issues from Geri Ransom, the acting director of the microbiology division of the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service. Ransom served as keynote speaker during the conference luncheon.
 
"We're excited about this," Ransom said of the final implementation of HACCP regulations in January 2000. During that month, meat and poultry processing plants in the very small category &emdash; 10 employees or less &emdash; were to come under the HACCP regulations developed in 1996 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Larger plants have come under the regulations during the past two years.
 
FSIS' goal is to improve food safety regulations so that they are based on performance standards, Ransom said. Performance standards will establish target organisms whose elimination or reduction will indicate compliance with the performance standards.
 
The FSC Steering Committee decided to begin a new tradition for annual meetings by holding them on the university campuses. With the exception of the 1999 meeting at Shangri-La, the FSC annual meeting has been held at hotels near Kansas City International Airport.
 
The 2000 annual meeting will be held Sept. 17-19 at the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. Details have not been settled but the conference sessions will likely be held in a campus academic building and a local hotel will be selected to host guests from the other universities.
 
Iowa State and Kansas State will host the meetings for 2001 and 2002, although it has not been determined yet which university will take which year.
 

FSC Observes Decade With History Publication
 
The FSC's first decade is reviewed in a special 24-page publication entitled The Food Safety Consortium: 10 Years of Service 1988-1998. The publication was released at the FSC's annual meeting in October.
 
The history includes a section on the FSC's origins and development. It tells the story of how in the late 1980s, Richard Forsythe and the University of Arkansas, George Beran of Iowa State University and Curtis Kastner of Kansas State University collaborated to organize the FSC as a working organization following action by Congress to provide funding.
 
"During the early years, the program leaders at the campuses knew which faculty members in various departments concentrated on particular areas of research that would be relevant to food safety," according to a passage from the history. "They were asked to develop proposals for FSC funding. The FSC grants also provided many faculty their first opportunity to hire post-doctoral students to assist in research projects."
 
Kastner, who is still the Kansas State program leader 10 years later, is quoted in the history as recently reflecting on the FSC's work. "We wish we could say that 20 years ago we anticipated the public's heightened interest in food safety today. Quite frankly, we did not," Kastner said. "We knew that microbiological methods had to be enhanced. We knew that we had to control pathogenic bacteria in our meat supply. In those areas, we had expertise.
 
"But external influences and circumstances &emdash; including the Jack in the Box scare of 1993 &emdash; took place and made those areas extremely important," he continued. "In that sense, we were lucky to have expertise in food safety and we were in the right place at the right time."
 
The publication also includes a summary of the past decade's research highlights for each university.
 
For Arkansas, James Denton wrote about the university's work in rapid methods development and monitoring techniques, the shift of focus to intervention strategies, epidemiological investigation of risk factors and novel intervention strategies, risk assessment and analysis and educational strategies.
 
James Dickson wrote the Iowa State section and covered enhancement of pork safety during live animal production and processing and as related to consumer issues.
 
Kastner's section for Kansas State reviewed decontamination of carcasses and subprimals, methods to enhance microbial detection, carcass trimming and washing, steam pasteurization, beef degree doneness and color, irradiation and sausage process validation.
 
The publication also contains a list of all published research by FSC investigators since the organization began receiving funds in 1991. The list of articles is grouped by university and is limited to refereed journals.
 
Copies of the history may be obtained for free from the FSC communications office. Requests for copies should be addressed to Dave Edmark, Food Safety Consortium, 110 Agriculture Building, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Ark. 72701. Requests may also be made by contacting Edmark at 501-575-5647 or by e-mail to dedmark@comp.uark.edu.
 
A PDF version of the history is also available for downloading from the home page of the FSC web site at http://www.uark.edu/depts/fsc.
 

Poultry Executive Reviews Safety Standards
 
Government-mandated performance standards for meat processing plants are an "innovative idea" that a Tyson Foods executive wants to make sure "serves the purpose &emdash; that purpose being that our food supply is safe."
 
Ellis Brunton, Tyson vice president for research and quality assurance, told the Food Safety Consortium annual meeting in October that performance standards are needed as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's pathogen reduction regulations. Brunton, who also serves on the FSC Steering Committee, generally supported the performance standards with reservations about specific aspects of some standards.
 
Salmonella is a focus of performance standards for poultry processors, Brunton noted. "The incidence of Salmonella has always been of critical interest to food safety people and the public."
 
The USDA performance standard for Salmonella on raw poultry is 20 percent. That means no more than 20 percent of chickens in a processing plant are allowed to have any Salmonella on them. Brunton said the poultry industry has no problem with that standard.
 
"You have to appreciate that the assay technique that we have for detecting the incidence of Salmonella is second to none," Brunton said. "It is capable of detecting a single organism. And for Campylobacter we have some extremely good techniques."
 
The performance standard for visible fecal material on raw poultry is zero tolerance, which Brunton questioned. "The problem I have is that it is not an objective type of standard. It is very subjective. It is based upon an observation made by an inspector and/or a processing plant employee. It is not founded on sound science."
 
The issue comes down to what is or is not fecal material. "I am adamantly in favor of zero tolerance of fecal matter on finished products," he said. "It should not be there. There's no doubt about that. But how do we make that determination?"
 
Running chicken carcasses through chiller water is an integral part of processing, and Brunton believes that setting the performance standard for visible fecal contamination would take into account the impact of the chiller baths.
 
"The chiller system is an effective intervention technique for reducing E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter," Brunton said. "I believe that as the performance standard for Salmonella is at the end of the chiller, so should the performance standard for visible fecal contamination. We can look at the microbe and have a good indication of the safety of that product."
 
Brunton called for more data to determine what should be the performance standard for Salmonella on ready-to-eat poultry products. The current performance standard calls for reduction at what Brunton considers an "overkill" level because poultry processors do not encounter Salmonella on ready-to-eat products at the levels by which USDA says the processors must reduce the pathogen.
 
Increased automation has played a role in improving food safety in the poultry industry. Brunton pointed out that automation has resulted in fewer people being in the plants than previously and that automation also provides consistency during processing.
"We have also standardized the size of the birds," he added. "That standardization has allowed us to do a more consistent job of gutting and eviscerating the bird and reducing the gut breakage where microbes are obviously harbored. We've drastically reduced the flaws and imperfections in the process with automation."
 
Brunton supported the implementation of the science-based Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system that the USDA began requiring in meat processing plants two years ago and credited it with reducing contamination. He noted that the new regulations have increased water usage in the plants.
 
"I can tell you that prior to the implementation of the new regulations, we were probably averaging as an industry close to 6 gallons of water per bird," he said. "With the new regulations, that has gone up considerably. I have seen averages range from 8 to 10 gallons per bird."
 

NAFS Begins Transitions to New Phases
 
After a year of tending to organizational details, the National Alliance for Food Safety is beginning to take shape. Specific goals are being set and tasks are being defined.
 
"We want to work on what the NAFS can do better than individual scientists or individual universities can do," said Lonnie King, co-chair of the NAFS board of directors.
 
King, the dean of the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, summarized NAFS activities in a report during a board meeting held in October in Washington during a Georgetown University food safety conference.
 
King said the NAFS seeks to have an impact on public policies regarding food safety and to meet the needs of consumers. Planned activities for NAFS members include pursuit of basic and applied research, service as advocates for food safety, coordination and prioritization of research, assisting in the establishment of a national food safety agenda and teaching food safety at the scientific, industrial and consumer levels.
 
"We want to leverage the capacity we have," he said. "We don't want to duplicate efforts."
 
Long-term funding prospects for NAFS are still developing, but funding is anticipated to be from multiple sources, King said.
 
NAFS is in a transitional stage. King explained that the organization currently relies on volunteer staff from member universities to serve its administrative needs. He has proposed consideration of shifting these duties to a permanent part-time or full-time staff in about a year.
 
As the NAFS charts its future, the board has imposed a moratorium on admitting new members. King said that when issues regarding NAFS funding and other procedures are resolved, the alliance will reopen the doors to new membership applications.
 
Meanwhile, the NAFS is also looking at ways to organize the research, educational and technology transfer activities it expects to sponsor. The board is continuing to work on a proposal that would establish NAFS as a "virtual institute." The current proposal would establish centers for areas of emphasis.
 
The center concept is based on a proposal reviewed by participating universities at the October meeting, King noted. The concept was presented as a method to better align participating universities.
 
The parameters of such centers, which King called "convergence points of research activity," would be determined by factors such as geographic locations and levels of collaboration with the Agricultural Research Service. The centers' roles would be reviewed every three years. Each center would concentrate on a particular area of food safety through collaboration of member institutions' researchers with similar interests. Some board members are developing alternative suggestions to the center concept.
 

Report From the Coordinator
By Charles J. Scifres
 
Food safety research these days increasingly takes into account a series of risk factors. Our consumer education projects appropriately inform the public that food production, processing and distribution is not risk free. Our best efforts aim to reduce risk as much as possible. We will likely never eliminate it but we can become better at managing risk.
 
The process is complex, but it is best understood the way that Thomas J. Billy explained it in a recent speech. Billy is the administrator of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and a strong advocate of making food safety decisions based on science. Billy calls that process a "risk analysis framework."
 
The risk analysis framework consists of three parts: risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. Risk assessment is the process of assessing the risks related to a specific food or pathogen. Risk management is the use of that risk assessment information to evaluate options and select strategies to manage those risks. Finally, risk communication is the process of letting the public know what those risks are.
 
Billy explains it this way: "Risk analyses play an important role in managing health hazards in food and, thus, improving food safety. Once hazards are identified, risk managers can weigh options to address these hazards. Options may include decisions by food companies to modify their process controls, or regulatory action where necessary. A broad range of voluntary options exist, such as activities on the part of industry to modify production, processing or labeling approaches."
 
The implementation of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points systems in food production and processing represents a significant risk management tool. A business with a HACCP system can determine where hazards are likely to occur and develop a plan to prevent or control the hazard.
 
Our research in the Food Safety Consortium is oriented toward the inevitably of risk and finding ways to manage it. James Denton of the FSC Steering Committee, who also serves on the National Advisory Committee for Meat and Poultry Inspection, recently offered timely advice in a letter to FSIS on the question of whether the agency should mandate that food be free of risk.
 
"The food pathogens we are attempting to manage are ubiquitous and therefore must be managed at the point where reduction of risk is most efficient," Denton wrote. "The concept of risk-free food is not scientifically supported for food or any other life activity."
 
An article elsewhere in this newsletter examines a Food Safety Consortium research project that measures the costs companies incur in managing these risks. The researchers have found that the higher costs buy additional margins of safety. We will probably not enjoy total freedom from risk in the foreseeable future. The Food Safety Consortium, however, will continue to look for ways for food producers and processors to make informed decisions that can keep risks at a minimum.
 

Starting With the Kids to Promote Food Safety
 
A food safety education program that originally targeted Arkansas school children has been picking up some notice across the country. There's still more work ahead to broaden its distribution within its home state, but Arkansas' Operation Food Safety is being requested by schools, businesses and federal officials throughout the U.S.
 
Operation Food Safety has its roots in the Food Safety Consortium research team at the University of Arkansas, where poultry science professor Amy Waldroup began working on the project in early 1997. That year, the Arkansas General Assembly established the program, which remains the nation's only state-mandated food safety instruction program for all public school grade levels.
 
"The ultimate goal of Operation Food Safety is to provide a responsible food safety message to all students from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 attending the 300-plus school districts across the state of Arkansas," Waldroup said.
 
The program emphasizes things that young people can do to prevent food contamination, such as washing hands and being cautious when handling food. For the youngest children in the programs, Waldroup has found the use of puppets to be effective in getting the message across. Before Operation Food Safety began working its way into public schools, Waldroup frequently took a puppet show along with her when she delivered presentations on food safety to children's day-care centers.
 
The first curriculum materials were designed for pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students. "There are planned lessons that teachers can take off the shelf with transparencies and handouts for the children to take home to their parents," Waldroup said.
 
Operation Food Safety has distributed about 6,000 copies of its curriculum in the past year free of charge. Waldroup noted that the materials have been sent to institutions other than Arkansas schools. "We've sent them to people who provide child-care services at churches and people who provide meals on wheels. We've had many restaurant chains pick up Operation Food Safety."
 
Waldroup estimated that 80 percent of the project's materials have been sent outside of Arkansas to almost every state and several foreign countries. But the programs's presence within Arkansas is about to expand. The Arkansas Department of Education recently approved the project's proposed curriculum for grades nine through 12. Drafts of curriculum for grades five through eight are still being developed.
 
Operation Food Safety recently received a $50,000 federal grant to implement the program in the areas of Arkansas it does not yet reach. "The money will be used for things such as training sessions for teachers," Waldroup said. "This is going to become more critical at the ninth through 12th grade level than in the pre-kindergarten through fourth grade level."
 
The grant will also be used for development of a web site for Operation Food Safety. "This will allow individuals to download the curriculum directly. This will greatly enhance the availability of the curriculum to educators all over the country and internationally."
 
The Arkansas legislation requires food safety instruction that fits into the public schools' health curriculum. Operation Food Safety is designed with enough flexibility to fit it into more microbiologically-oriented curriculum, which will happen as the federal Fight BAC! program adopts it. Fight BAC! is a national effort of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a coalition of several government and private agencies. It concentrates largely on the aspects of bacteria and their role in food contamination and foodborne illness.
 
Operation Food Safety is also participating in the portion of the President's Food Safety Initiative known as "Bringing the Farm-to-Table Food Safety Initiative to Classrooms Nationwide." Waldroup said the Arkansas project directors were asked to work with the national initiative on a study of the food safety training tools that are currently available.
 
Waldroup believes the messages contained in Operation Food Safety can have lasting impact by educating the next generations of food handlers, cooks and diners.
 
"It has been estimated that proper handwashing alone could eliminate close to half of all the cases of foodborne illness in the U.S.," Waldroup said. "Other data suggest that proper handwashing and good personal hygiene could significantly reduce the spread of the common cold and flu, thus greatly reducing absenteeism in the workplace and schools."
 

New Costs of Safer Food Challenge Industry
 
New food safety regulations are in effect at all meat and poultry processing plants. The rules are designed to make sure that companies use science-based procedures to guard the quality of the product that comes off the processing line.
 
Better assurances of a safer food supply come with the new rules. So do new costs. The new technologies to control bacterial contamination bring additional expenses. Those new costs may not be much relative to other cost variations in the industry, but they have an impact.
 
"In a competitive industry, achieving efficiency in meeting the new regulations represents a significant challenge to firms," said Helen Jensen, an economics professor at Iowa State University, where she is a principal investigator for the Food Safety Consortium.
 
The new system in effect at processing plants &emdash; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, otherwise known as HACCP &emdash; consists of procedures tailor-made by each plant's management to find points during processing at which actions are taken to stop or eliminate contamination of the food by harmful bacteria. Jensen has been reviewing the costs that the pork industry faces in implementing HACCP systems.
 
In a recent study of industry costs, Jensen and Laurian Unnevehr of the University of Illinois found that the highest cost of HACCP systems was 34 cents per hog carcass, which translates to an additional 1 to 2 percent in total processing costs. Margins are tight in the pork industry, Jensen noted, so in some cases the extra costs might be a major factor.
 
"It would probably depend on a particular processing plant and how cost effective its choice of safety processes is, and whether it would be paying higher prices for hogs in contracts with reduced food safety risks," she said.
 
The system does provide additional units of safety along with additional costs, so it can be argued that processing companies are getting more benefits in return for their outlay.
 
"From the firm's point of view, it's important that they are able to capture the returns to those benefits in the marketplace," Jensen said. "There's not a good marketplace for additional investments in safety. It's clear that firms want to provide a safe product. We're talking about decisions at the margin."
 
Those decisions can determine how much more safety a processor will provide. For example, if a processor finds food stores that require a certain level of safety, then a processor that enters into a contract with the stores has a private market incentive to invest further in food safety.
 
Jensen's study covered mostly large firms that knew for the past few years that HACCP regulations were coming. Those firms had the resources to hire additional personnel to monitor and organize a HACCP program.
 
Smaller firms are a different matter, Jensen noted. Those that are just barely making it now may find the additional costs of testing and labor to be a major burden.
 
"The small firms are much more likely to have difficulty in meeting the regulations," Jensen said. "They will face a much different cost structure than the large firms."
 
To make food safety measures cost-effective in the plants, industry needs to know at what points in processing their efforts will have the most impact. Jensen said research at Iowa State has been concentrating on where at the farm and in the processing plants the most food-contamination risks are found.
 
"We have information on risks associated at the farm level," Jensen said. "We have some research underway on transportation. We have a lot of information at the plant level. We're trying to integrate the information that's available at the farm and the plants to look at the most cost effective points of intervention."
 
Part of the studies, for example, covers the contamination risks that live hogs bring with them to the farm. The studies attempt to find at what points of transfer the risks are greatest. Knowledge of those risks makes it possible for farmers to focus their anti-contamination efforts, which reduces the prospect of contaminated hogs coming to the processing plants. Higher prices for lower risk hogs would reward farmers for additional costs of the farm-level controls.
 

Papers and Presentations
 
Harley Moon, Iowa State, presented a paper with N.A. Cornick, S. Booher and T.A. Casey entitled "Are Ruminants a Biological or Accidental Reservoir for VTEC 0157?" in the proceedings of the International Conference on Pathogenicity and Virulence of Verotoxigenic E. coli in November in Liege, Belgium. Moon also published an article with L.J. Hoffman, N.A. Cornick, S.L. Booher and B.T. Bosworth entitled "Prevalences of Some Virulence Genes Among E. coli From Swine Presented to a Diagnostic Laboratory in Iowa" in the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation, 11: 557-560, 1999.
 
Curtis Kastner, Kansas State, presented a paper on pork safety at the annual Swine Day in November at Kansas State University. The presentation summarized the Food Safety Consortium's work on blade-tenderized, injected and restructed beef and pork safety.
 
Daniel Fung, Kansas State, was named a Fellow of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology. He received the award during the organization's 1999 meeting in Sydney, Australia.
 
Fung presented several papers during the autumn of 1999. They were "Rapid Methods and Automation in Food Microbiology &emdash; Testing Procedures" and "Rapid Methods and Automation" in September at the Hawaii Food Safety Conference; "Control of Foodborne Pathogens by Spices" with E. Ceylan and J.R. Sabah in September at the Hawaii Section of the Institute of Food Technologists meeting in Honolulu; "Rapid Methods and Automation in Microbiology: An Update" at the 43rd OHOLO Conference in October in Eilat, Israel; "How to Be Successful in Food Science" at the Association of Food Technology Club, "Excellence in Food Science Day Development at the Food Science Department meeting and "What's Needed in Rapid Detection of Foodborne Pathogens" at the Food Science and Human Nutrition Seminar, all in November at the University of Illinois, and "Rapid Methods and Automation in Microbiology" at the Food Science Seminar and "How to Be Successful in Food Science" at the Food Science Club meeting, both in November at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
 
Fung's publications in the autumn were "Anaerobes" with L.E. Erickson in the Encyclopedia of Bioprocess Technology &emdash; Fermentation, Biocatalysis and Bioseparation, 1999: 137-150; "Food Safety: Impact of Food Microbiology to the Industry" in the Singapore Institute of Food Science and Technology Annual, 1998: 6-10; "Thin Agar Layer Method to Isolate Listeria spp. and Listeria monocytogenes From Foods" with D.H. Kang in the Journal of Food Protection, 62 (11): 1346-1349; "Effect of Diacetyl on Controlling Escherichia coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella typhimurium in the Presence of Starter Culture" with D.H. Kang in the Journal of Food Protection, 62 (9): 975-979; "Comparison of Five Anaerobic Incubation Methods for Enumeration of Clostridium perfringens From Foods" with A. Riley and D.H. Kang in the Journal of Food Protection, 63 (9): 1041-1044; "Novel Method for Study of the Extracellular Cell-bound Proteinase From Lactic Acid Bacteria" with D.H. Kang, P. Thangpong and K.A. Schmidt in the Journal of Rapid Methods and Automation in Microbiology, 7: 113-117, and four articles inThe Wiley Encyclopedia of Food Science, 2nd edition, F.J. Francis, editor: "Microbiology of Foods," 1629-1635; "Food Fermentation," 913-923; "Foodborne Diseases," 1078-1089, and "Rapid Methods of Microbiological Analysis," 2017-2044.
 

Food Safety Digest
By Dave Edmark

You've read about it in The Food Safety Consortium Newsletter. Consumers should rely on thermometers to determine whether their meat is fully cooked because internal color is an unreliable guide. Melvin Hunt's research at Kansas State University has made that point clear. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has followed up by actively encouraging consumers to use thermometers. Grocery stores have joined the campaign.

 
Many stores sell the disposable stick thermometers, sometimes called "T-sticks." Giant Food, a grocery chain in the Washington, D.C., area, started a campaign a year ago with full-page newspaper ads, radio announcements, labels on packages and displays in the store promoting the thermometers as a way to cook meat safely. More than 40,000 thermometers were sold in the first six months of 1999, far outpacing the usual annual sales of 2,000.
 
USDA reports that other grocery chains pushing thermometer sales are Wegman's of New York and Pennsylvania, Copps Food in Connecticut, Big W Foods in New England and several companies in Colorado that are running joint campaigns with the state cooperative extension service.
 
* * *
Checking the internal color of meat to determine if it's done is one old and popular food safety theory that scientists have shown to be undependable. Many such theories are handed down over generations because they appear to be accurate. Another one is the old notion that people should cook turkeys overnight at low temperatures. Food safety experts know that's a dangerous practice, but people who have done that for a long time will respond that no one in their families has gotten sick as a result. So what's the problem?
 
Katherine Rowan, a communication professor at Purdue University, says such lay theories need to be overcome. In the overnight turkey example, she notes the scientific view is that low temperatures can allow pathogenic bacteria to grow on the turkey without providing enough heat to kill those bacteria. Whether someone gets sick may be a matter of how well that person has become acclimated to the repeated practice over time. Rowan notes that some people may get sick but do not associate their illness with a recent meal. Sometimes the meal that caused the problem may be days or weeks before the actual onset of the illness.
 
So the best advice is to ignore the anecdotal lay theories and take the precautions advised by the scientists.
 

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