CHICAGO — After the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993-94, there was not much more available to meat processors who wanted to fight the pathogen other than water and a knife.

Fast-forward to today and it is taking  a two-day conference in Chicago just to go through all the “antimicrobial interventions” corporate and university researchers have come up with in the last 18 years for meat industry practitioners.

“Interventions,” as the meat industry calls them, include a long and growing list including chemicals, ultraviolet light, ozone, acidic baths, silver iodine, high pressure processing, irradiation and on and on.

Whatever intervention is chosen, the goal is to reduce the relative number of live microbes of the pathogen. Most of the speakers have been talking about achieving somewhere between a 2 and 5 log reduction, meaning making the bacteria count 100 to 100,000 times smaller.

The focus on antimicrobial interventions, however, brought a warning from Angie Siemens of Cargill Meat Solutions in Wichita. She said interventions should not be used as an excuse to buy from poor risk suppliers, nor to turn out products that are a poor risk for consumers.

Siemens said that with Cargill “buying as much trim as it sells,” it collects data to create “risk profiles,” which she urged the meat industry to pay attention to as it develops interventions.

Two weeks ago, Cargill temporarily closed its Arkansas turkey processing facility after it was implicated in a nationwide outbreak of the antibacterial resistant Salmonella Heidelberg.  Siemens did not address that situation.

Organized by the North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP), the conference has the support of more than a dozen other meat industry organizations in the U.S. and Canada.  It is also supported by the Beef Industry Food Safety Council in collaboration with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Office of Outreach, Employee Education and Training.

University of Nebraska Professor Harshavardhan Thippareddi, known within the industry as “Dr. Ready,” kicked off the event with a walk through of all the various interventions that are available for subprimals, trim and ground beef.  He also went through the data on the efficacy or capacity of an intervention to have an effect.

Two intervention areas in which FSIS may eventually become involved are in-plant validations and whether the processes to knock down pathogen counts should be considered critical control points (CCP) under Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans.

FSIS is expected to issue a validation document soon.  From case studies presented by meat companies that recently implemented antimicrobial interventions, the techniques being used are not being considered CCP, either because they are not intended as a 100 percent kill step or to avoid more paperwork.

Phil Kimball, NAMP’s executive director, said the concentrated format of the Chicago conference brings “the best of the best” together to work over the current status of antimicrobial interventions.

Officially, the event is NAMP’s annual “Prevention of E. Coli” conference. Most of those presenting are assuming the industry is going to have to add the six non-O157:H7 strains to interventions shortly. Only O157:H7 is currently banned from meat because of its official status as an adulterant.  

However, USDA has asked the Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to approve a rule that could make six other strains “adulterants.”  Dr. James Marsden, the regents distinguished profession at the Kansas State University, today (Aug. 18) will talk about the non-O157 STECs from both a public health and public policy perspective.

Afterward, Dr. Mohammad Koohmaraie from IEH Laboratories in Lake Forest Park, WA will present the laboratory methods for detecting the non-O157 STECs.