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Pundit’s Mailbag — Beef Industry Not The Best Guide For Produce Food Safety

It was the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative that called for the produce industry to look to the beef industry as a model for how food safety in produce might be improved. We followed up by writing Pundit’s Pulse of The Industry: Beef Industry Food Safety Council’s James “Bo” Reagan.

Acknowledging that everyone’s experience has value and we should learn what we can from each industry, one of the trade’s most prominent food safety experts points out that the experience of the beef industry may not offer the produce trade as much guidance as we would hope:

There are a number of individuals claiming that the lessons learned from the beef industry should be used as a model for the fresh produce industry. Certainly we would be foolish to ignore the lessons learned in any industry, but it would be wise to keep in mind a few of the differences between commodities while doing so.

For example, the following are the first two sentences from an abstract* in a recent edition of the Journal of Food Protection: “Harborage of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella on animal hides at slaughter is the main source of beef carcass contamination during processing. Given this finding, interventions have been designed and implemented to target the hides of cattle following entry into beef processing plants.” The fact that feces are a major source of the microbial load on the hides assures us that there will be a high correlation between microbial levels and human pathogens in beef.

The first difference between beef and fresh produce is that we do not know the main source of contamination for fresh produce. The typical US grocery retailer will display more than 500 items. Depending on the item they will be grown with continual contact with the soil (root corps) to never contacting the soil (orchard and vineyard crops) and everywhere in between. We will more than likely find that there is no principle source of contamination but rather multiple sources that trade places with regards to significance depending on crop, location, cultural methods, weather, harvesting system, etc.

Second under the normal conditions, beef muscle or meat starts as a sterile product. Microbiological contamination with human pathogens is occurring at slaughter, and the principle sources being the process of removing the hide or the intestinal track. Produce does not start out as a sterile product. In fact one of the objectives of the aggressive push of organic and sustainable farming is to insure that the soil we grow our produce in is teaming with beneficial microbes. Those microbes help to create a healthy soil but their presence on the harvested produce is inevitable. A total plate count in the millions on beef will raise a red flag. A similar find on produce is not uncommon and typically not associated with the presence of human pathogens.

Third microbial levels on many produce items will be correlated with weather. Microbial levels will increase subsequent to rainfall events in semi arid or arid regions on many crops.

Fourth the muscle from beef is not a living organism. Fresh produce is and therefore must be handled in a manner that does not negatively impact its finite life expectancy. This will limit many of our remedial options.

Fifth the primary corrective measure for high proteins is not an option for most fresh produce items. A wok provides remediation in certain parts of the world for fresh produce, and cooking certainly addresses many of the issues in the poultry industry, but heat is not the desired corrective measure for most fresh produce items.

Taking the comparison with the beef (high protein) industry too far will not solve the fresh produce industry’s current problems. It will allocate limited resources to efforts with minimal return.

— Robert F. Stovicek, PhD.
Primus Group

* “Effects of a Minimal Hide Wash Cabinet on the Levels and Prevalence of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella on the Hides of Beef Cattle at Slaughter” in the Journal of Food Protection Vol. 70, No. 5 pages 1076 — 1079.

It is easy for people not directly involved in these areas to get carried away. Bob served a useful purpose when he cautioned us about drawing too many conclusions from overseas operations that do not function under CDC’s PulseNet. Now, he points out that produce is unique and we can waste resources tilting at windmills.

Many thanks to Bob and to Primus for helping us think these issues through.

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