Citing an estimated 2 million U.S. illnesses caused annually because of contaminated meat and poultry and resulting health care costs of almost $6 billion, a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts is calling for renewed commitment from government and industry to reduce microorganisms before animals reach the slaughterhouse.
In its report “Food Safety From Farm to Fork,” the non-profit group examines potential ways to prevent foodborne illnesses with the wider use of “evidence-based” interventions on farms and feedlots. The researchers looked at statistics from U.S. agencies and industry as well as what other countries have done to control Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter in meat and poultry.
A key point echoes an old expression. It turns out animals are what they eat, and starting with clean feed is critical, according to the report. A variety of pre-harvest interventions — from ensuring that water and feed are clean to administering vaccines and other preventive treatments — can significantly reduce the risk that bacteria harmful to humans will infect food animals.
“An effective food safety system includes measures to prevent contamination at every step along the meat and poultry supply chain,” Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s safe food project, said in a news release Monday. “More can and should be done on farms and feedlots.”
Reducing pathogens in food animals not only reduces the opportunity for foodborne illnesses, but also reduces meat and poultry producers’ risks for recalls, which can bankrupt an operation.
“From 2005 to 2015, potential contamination with one of three pathogens — Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, or Shiga toxin-producing E. coli — led to recalls representing about half of the roughly 425 million pounds of meat and poultry products removed from the marketplace for any reason,” according to the Pew report.
The report includes a variety of specific recommendations for government and industry, but the bottom line for all of them is investment — investment in research, testing, intervention strategies and information sharing.
To develop and increase adoption of effective pathogen control strategies, the report offers the following recommendations:
- Government agencies should fund research into how to best manage herds or flocks to maintain animal health and keep harmful bacteria out; support field trials to gather accurate data on efficacy, application protocols, and the basic science associated with promising but poorly understood pre-harvest interventions; designate resources to evaluate how to best combine multiple existing interventions; and consider incentives to spur additional research into pre-harvest food safety efforts.
- Regulatory agencies should provide incentives for the implementation of pre-harvest food safety interventions, including those that enhance biosecurity and herd and flock management practices; consider ways to systematically synthesize data and prioritize where and when interventions should be applied; improve the regulatory approval process to ensure that promising products reach the market; and increase collaboration and communication among all stakeholders to raise awareness about promising interventions.
- Industry should consider individual pre-harvest interventions within the larger context of managing the health of the herd or flock and implement adequate controls to protect animal health and keep pathogens out, such as setting standards for the safety of feed and water on farms and feedlots.
- All stakeholders should develop information technology infrastructure and capacity to encourage sharing of efficacy and safety data among industry, academia, governmental researchers, and regulatory agencies, and keep all parties apprised of up-to-date research and information.
“Collaboration among producers, researchers, and regulators is critical to ensure food safety hazards are minimized before the animals ever reach slaughter,” Karin Hoelzer, a veterinarian with Pew’s safe food project, said in the Monday news release.
“The adoption of evidence-based interventions outlined in this report will mean fewer people will be sickened by contaminated meat and poultry products.”
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