About a decade ago, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service deployed a diverse task force to look at risk-based inspection.

The first meeting was not very productive. Dr. Richard Raymond, then the undersecretary for food safety, was not expecting much better for the second session. Then Joe Harris began speaking up, giving the task force enough direction for it to fulfill its mission.

Harris is president and CEO of the Southwest Meat Association (SMA). He holds a Ph.D. in Meat Science from Texas A&M University. He’s well into his third decade as SMA’s leader.

One thing Harris is known for is the SMA annual conventions. He brings government, industry, and academia to the table and then adds in some offerings that have nothing to do directly with meat.

The Texas-based meat and poultry trade organization got underway early in the last century to represent packers and processors. It’s membership now spans 34 states.

Last week, the Southwest Meat Association met in convention at the Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa and Convention Center in Galveston, TX. Moody Gardens is the center of a large water park adjacent to the Gulf Beaches.

Mindy Brashears was there. She first attended the annual SMA convention 16 years ago. In the past, she attended either to present her research or to provide an update on the Texas Tech Animal Science program.

SMA stays close to the universities that educate the students its members are likely to employ. In addition to hearing from Texas Tech, last week’s convention attendees also received detailed updates from Angelo State, Sam Houston State, Tarleton State, and Texas A&M.

The rundowns included all sorts of facts and factoids. Who knew for example, that there is now a five-year waiting list to get into the Texas A&M barbecue camp? Maybe you could pick up a Harvard law degree while you are waiting.

Oh, and at the convention’s “Margaritaville” event, they raised more than $80,000 for the SMA Foundation Scholarship Fund.

Brashears returned to SMA this year standing on the threshold of being the American government’s highest-ranking food safety official. For reasons that have nothing to do with Brashears, the Senate has held up her confirmation vote.

Since she spoke at SMA, major agricultural groups began pressing Senate leadership to confirm Brashears’ nomination as USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety.

Six months ago, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue named Brashears as USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food safety. The deputy appointment did not require Senate confirmation and permitted Brashears to get to work.

At SMA, Brashears rolled out the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s priorities, leaving little doubt that she is fully up to speed. Pork and beef modernization is going to happen.

USDA can publish a final rule for the modernization of swine inspections at any time. Poultry modernization took effect in 2014. Like poultry, pork modernization is not without criticism of line speeds and worker safety measures.

Once pork modernization is final, FSIS will turn to beef modernization by using a waiver process. Brashears expects waiver requests to come mainly from large beef plants. Tysons has filed for such a waiver.

Brashears told SMA that the rest of the FSIS current agenda includes:

  • pathogen control
  • outreach to small and very small plants
  • consumer education
  • veterinarian inspector recruiting

Laboratories usually don’t find E. coli O157: H7 and the other six strains of E. coli that are also adulterants in the same sample. Separate testing for O157 and non-O157 strains will solve that problem, according to Brashers.

On consumer education, Brashears says a Consumer Ed 2.0 program is needed because food safety messages are not getting through to the public. On basics, like hand washing and using a meat thermometer, awareness may be getting even worse.

On personnel, Brashears says she enjoys recruiting veterinarian inspectors. On outreach, she says working with small and very small plants is familiar territory as she did consult with that segment when she was at Texas Tech.

The deputy undersecretary deftly handled questions from a small packer who was concerned about paying overtime for inspectors. No others asked questions, maybe preferring to let it sink in.

The SMA convention moved on. There was retired CIA spook James Olson, business guru Kurt Schneiber, and Texas troubadour Philip Griffin to hear from. Just to name a few.

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