Looking back on his time at the the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, James “Bo” Reagan tends to focus on his work within the beef industry to help beat back the threat of E. coli. In the unending war between an entire industry and a single bacterium, he has likely led more battles than anyone else.
Reagan spent more than two decades as the senior vice president of research, education and innovation at the NCBA, the century-old marketing and trade association representing American cattle farmers and ranchers. Last month, he left the organization to pursue other opportunities.
During his tenure, Reagan helped steer the beef industry’s safety protocols during two of the worst food-safety crises in modern history: the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993 and a record-setting recall of E. coli-contaminated ConAgra ground beef a decade later.
The Jack in the Box outbreak sickened more than 700 people, killing four children and leaving another 178 victims with lifelong medical complications. It was the first outbreak of its kind, and it single-handedly made E. coli a household name.
At the time of the E. coli outbreak, Reagan worked for the National Livestock and Meat Board, which merged with the NCBA in 1996. When the outbreak hit, the beef industry appointed Reagan to lead a team of 10 specialists in a Blue Ribbon Task Force with the goal of examining every facet of the beef business and determining the best approaches for dealing with E. coli.
“We came up with a long list of stuff we didn’t know,” Reagan told Food Safety News. “We didn’t know anything about E. coli, basically.”
The 1993 outbreak was a wake-up call to the industry. A year later, E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef became the first pathogen to be declared an “adulterant” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Beef industry figures took the FSIS ruling to court and lost, so having E. coli in ground beef was suddenly illegal.
Industry research turned to studying and learning how to prevent E. coli contamination on meat. Engineers designed new pasteurization techniques, such as steam cabinets that killed microbial organisms without cooking the meat.
Then, in 1997, the biggest companies in the industry came together to form BIFSCo, the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, which Reagan worked to coordinate. Through BIFSCo, each year around March, representatives and safety specialists from all areas of the beef industry come together to share information on how to best fight microbial contamination in beef.
“We got everyone to come together and said, ‘Look, this is a huge issue and it’s impacting all of us,’” Reagan said. “We agreed that no one would use safety as a competitive issue or an economic advantage.”
Reflecting on his 22 years of representing the beef industry, Reagan said that the vast majority of industry research dollars has gone into fighting E. coli, and, more recently, Salmonella. That research is funded by beef “checkoff” dollars: $1 for every head of cattle sold in the United States, 50 cents of which goes directly to organizations such as the NCBA to fund industry research.
Reagan said he is proud of how far the industry has come in terms of safety in the past two decades. For one thing, he said, big, million-pound beef recalls don’t happen anymore, and the smaller ones have become less common.
But the work is far from over. Reagan said that future industry leaders will always have a new safety threat down the road, much like the way E. coli exploded onto the industry’s radar in 1993.
“One thing I’ve learned is, with your safety program, you’ve always got to have your finger on the pulse,” he said. “You can’t let up.”
© Food Safety News