In another step forward in the battle against foodborne illnesses, the world’s largest beef producer and processed-beef exporter is installing around-the-clock remote video auditing in its eight beef plants in the United States.
On Dec. 2, Colorado-based Beef Division of JBS USA Holdings, Inc., a wholly owned indirect subsidiary of JBS S.A., announced its decision to install the technology, saying that it will “enhance the company’s existing efforts in food safety, quality, and animal-handling activities carried out by employees.”
JBS and Arrowsight, the New York-based company that developed the surveillance system and related software, collaborated to design and implement the system that will be used in JBS’s U.S. beef plants.
Arrowsight’s RVA systems are also used in the healthcare and fast-food restaurant industries.
“We help save lives, keep food safe, and optimize productivity,” the company says in its introduction on its website.
According to information released by the two companies, the system “will advance food-safety performance by line workers on the slaughter floor by reducing issues related to cross-contamination.”
Cross contamination is one of main ways potentially fatal pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella can get into the meat. Both pathogens have been responsible for massive beef recalls.
JBS, which plans to have the RVA system up and running in all of its beef plants in 2011, is pleased by how well it is working so far.
Dr. John Ruby, head of Technical Services for JBS USA Beef Division, said that within weeks of installing the RVA system, it was able to improve the accuracy of the company’s monitoring.
“By measuring the performance of our workers and providing them with immediate feedback while they work, JBS will be able to continually measure and improve our food-safety systems,” Ruby said in a news release.
Arrowsight CEO Adam Aronson likened the benefit of remote video auditing in JBS’s beef plants to the same advantage that sports fans have: They can watch repeat plays of what happened.
He said that provides an accurate assessment of what employees were actually doing, in contrast to what they think they saw or did when the line was moving fast. From there, they can be shown how to make improvements to minimize contamination by foodborne pathogens.
Aronson said the video monitoring can also be used to pinpoint which workers need retraining or extra attention.
Earlier this year, another beef giant, Cargill, announced it was installing the same sort of RVA system, also provided by Arrowsight, in two of its beef plants, as a pilot project, with an eye on expanding it to all of its North American beef and pork plants.
It is currently using RVA in its plants in Fresno, CA, and Milwaukee, as well as in a fed-cattle plant in Texas.
In addition,Cargill uses RVA to monitor animal-welfare practices in 10 of its North American meat plants.
Steve Kay, editor and publisher of “Cattle Buyers Weekly,” said JBS’s decision to install the video auditing system is especially significant because it is the first company in the United States to be doing this on a systemwide basis.
“This is a big deal,” he said.
On industrywide level, it’s even a bigger deal. According to “Cattle Buyers Weekly” statistics, in 2009, Cargill and JBS, together, accounted for 40.5 percent of total U.S. commercial slaughter.
Total commercial slaughter includes all classes of cattle slaughter from federally inspected slaughter all the way down to small beef farms that are inspected by one agency or another.
In the United States, JBS has the capacity to slaughter 28,600 cattle, 48,500 hogs, 4,500 lambs and 7.2 million birds each day.
Cargill doesn’t supply those kind of figures, but according to “Cattle Buyers Weekly,” Cargill had 22.1 percent of the U.S. beef market share in 2008. Earlier this year, a Cargill spokesman told Food Safety News that that percentage was probably close to what it was in 2009 and early into 2010.
For consumers, the decision by Cargill and JBS to install the technology holds out the promise that fewer people will be sickened, or killed, by beef-related foodborne pathogens.
Nancy Donley, board president of consumer watchdog S.T.O.P., Safe Tables Our Priority, told Food Safety News that the recent news about JBS is “a good start of a great trend.”
“I hope the rest of the industry will take note and follow suit,” she said.
Pointing out that it’s “basic human nature” for people to perform better when they know they’re being watched, Donley applauds the technology for its potential to help keep foodborne pathogens out of meat by making sure that the line workers are following food-safety practices.
“Ultimately this will be good for consumers,” she said. “Fewer mistakes will be made in the slaughtering process, and the meat will be safer. It’s in the public’s benefit to have this technology in place.”
Donley also said it will also be good for the beef industry because consumers will have more confidence in the safety of beef.
Arrowsight CEO Aronson told Food Safety News that by addressing the “root cause of cross-contamination,” his company’s RVA system has the potential “to tranform the global beef industry and establish new food-safety standards in slaughtering and processing plants.”
He described the “root cause of cross-contamination” as dangerous bacteria that can move from the outside of the hide onto the carcass during slaughter.
He said that monitoring the workers can help stop this by ensuring that they clean their knives, cutters, and hands in between each carcass. It will also help ensure that the workers don’t cause carcass defects as they remove the hide and organs before the sides of meat are hung.
As for worker morale, Aronson said the technology can actually raise worker morale because it gives managers a way to recognize and reward good workers and good worker teams.
When looking ahead, Aronson is optimistic that more meat plants will install the technology.
“I think that with both JBS and Cargill now utilizing our remote video auditing services that more companies will elect to adopt these services,” he said.
In addition to JBS and Cargill, the company serves 12 other meat facilities that produce bacon, turkey, beef and chicken products.
Aronson is also optimistic about how this can play out in the marketplace.
“Seeing JBS and Cargill move forward with remote video auditing services will make more companies feel confident that our services are legitimate and effective,” he said. “In the end, if more companies adopt remote video auditing services, there will be safer and higher quality meat products available to consumers.”
Kay of “Cattle Buyers Weekly,” said that the beef industry invests hundreds of millions of dollars in food safety and that most company officials he talks with tell him that food safety is their top priority.
“Everyone wants to put out the safest product possible,” he said.
Cargill spokesman Mike Martin shared similar thoughts.
“We’re all working to the same end,” he said. “It’s about achieving safe food for consumers.”
Martin also said that the investment Cargill has made in remote video auditing services “is not insignificant.”
“The reality is when it comes to food safety, we look at whatever tools are effective in improving food safety,” he said. “It’s the prudent thing to do for the long-term viability of our business.”
Beef producer Bill Hoyt, president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, applauds JBS’s decision to use RVA to monitor its beef plants for food-safety and humane animal-handling practices.
“Having third-party surveillance will help make sure that the employees are doing things right,” he said. “It will be reassuring to the public that everyone is working toward the same goal — that food safety is as good as it can be and that the animals are being treated right. It’s a win win for the consumer and the beef industry.”
Recent JBS and Cargill beef recalls:
— In June 2009, JBS Swift Beef Co. voluntarily recalled 421,000 pounds of beef products because of possible E. coli contamination. More than a dozen people were sickened.
— This year, JBS launched three recalls for approximately 400,000 pounds of various beef products produced in a JBS plant in Brazil and shipped into the United States.
— In 2009, Beef Packers, Inc., a Fresno, Calif., Cargill plant, initiated two recalls of ground beef (approximately 848,492 pounds) that may have been linked to a Salmonella outbreak.
— This year, Cargill recalled about 8,500 pounds of ground beef for possible E. coli contamination. The recalled meat was processed in a Cargill plant in Wyalusing Pa. According to the USDA, two E. coli illnesses in Maine and one in New York prompted the recall.