Everybody has their food safety opinions, myself included
Whether one is professionally representing some agricultural industry segment or one’s farming or ranching operation, it seems that nowadays everybody is a food safety expert. It does not matter whether you have farmed all of your life or are new to farming, studied finance or history or underwater basketweaving, somehow — as if by magic — you are qualified to provide expert commentary on nearly anything related to food safety. Yet, successful improvement of food safety will result from pointed, manageable practices and procedures — a systems approach, if you will. Before this can happen, it must be understood what everyone’s role in food safety is.
I’ve heard some pretty interesting food safety pontification recently, much of which boils down to agricultural infighting or finger-pointing. An extreme example I’ve heard many times is livestock farmers “telling their story” with the message of “my product is safer than lettuce or other leafy greens,” all the while not making the connection that (1) the lettuce contamination could come from, oh, livestock poop, that (2) most consumers do not buy livestock, and (3) they will hopefully wash their leafy greens. Umm, maybe we should start by comparing apples to apples, so to speak? Let’s distill the overall food system into something recognizable and consider what happens, farm to fork, from a food safety perspective. Keep in mind that in some industries, some or all of these “phases” might be fulfilled by one person or business.
Generalizations about food safety don’t help
Agriculture is the entire food system, not just farming, and is very segmented. If we are going to successfully tackle food safety challenges, we must step back and look at the industry as a whole and figure out how one can improve the safety of their own and subsequent phase of food production. Instead, the current situation is one of taking ownership of the entire system with broad generalizations, and no system improvement can be accomplished if we’re engaged in a constant process of pulling the wool over each others eyes.
Big picture, there are three major players: the producer, the processor, and the retailer. The experiences and responsibilities of everyone involved in their step in the overall food system vary. Their coexistence and food safety-related practices are what ultimately lead to a safe [insert food item], and inadequate or inept food safety measures at any or all of those points is what may lead to “problems.” (I write “problems” because some may be legit problems whereas others can be completely overblown.)
Our current meat production system
Let’s consider a few examples of responsibilities and practices exhibited currently by each of those broad food system steps with a focus on meat production:
- The producer: The producer is the farmer or rancher who raises animals with the intent of those animals being consumed by humans. This is the phase where livestock are raised and sold. Currently, the producer is responsible for providing an environment that will not compromise the health and well-being of the animal, as well as supplying an animal whose tissues will not pose a human health threat. The animal needs to be healthy when it leaves the farm and capable of passing USDA antemortem inspection, as well as postmortem inspection of organs. This can include systemic infections, transmissible disease, or simply not being able to walk (which can happen for a variety of reasons not at all related to food safety). The product of this phase is a healthy, well-managed animal, which is not the same thing as safe meat. As well, animal feeds should be microbiologically safe, especially in scenarios where that contamination may end up in the end product (i.e., eggs). There are emergent technologies targeting on-farm food safety management, including vaccines and feed ingredients; however, these are not widely practiced nor mandatory (yet).
- The processor: The processor should receive a healthy animal from the producer that, if it has been medicated in any way, must be beyond the prescribed withdrawal period (there are tolerance limits to antibiotic residues, for example — this does not mean there are “zero residues” in livestock entering the food supply), and be free of any illness or disease that is a human health risk. This is the phase were livestock are turned into meat and meat products. Because bacteria harmful to humans may not be harmful to their livestock hosts, it then becomes the processors job to keep bacteria in check during the slaughter and processing phases, right up to the point of distribution. They are also responsible for the sanitation and maintenance of their facilities — managing appropriate levels of sanitizers, making sure equipement is in good working order. Up to this point, there is still the possibility of a food safety issue arising. In the case of bacterial contamination, remember it is essentially impossible to obtain totally bacteria-free meat unless some sort of super-intense bug zapping process has been applied to the meat, i.e. irradiation. As well, any potential problems such as allergens in certain products as well as the proviso of safe food handling are typically addressed during this phase.
- The retailer: The retailer has the task of maintaining all of the good things that the producer and processor have done to ensure the safety of food. This is the phase where some finishing touches might be made and safety is upheld as it reaches the end consumer. In some cases, the retailer has minimal interaction with the product (i.e., everything came pre-packaged). However, some interaction can occur, including grinding or cutting of meat, or the slicing of deli products. Sanitation is critical if such interaction occurs in order to mitigate the opportunity for pathogen reintroduction to the food item. In the case of foodservice, they have the responsibility of providing the ultimate steps of food safety, namely proper storage temperatures, minimizing opportunities for cross-contamination and, of course, cooking items to appropriate temperatures. Restaurants also have the responsibility of informing consumers of potential risks of undercooked products.
Note that the responsibilities of the consumer have been omitted so far. Yes, they have a responsibility, too, yet they are incredibly difficult to manage. Educational campaigns, including those in what used to be called “home ec” classes certainly fit the bill of consumer education. Sure, if everyone “just cooked it” we wouldn’t have too many problems. Even so, consumers are a great unknown, which is why the three food system segments must exist symbiotically.
Summary of the current situation
The producer supplies a healthy, well-managed animal to a processor. The processor is responsible for working with inspectors to deal with incoming animals accordingly, and to then manage the safety of the product and it flows through the processing system. The retailer is then responsible for working with the processor to source safe products and then maintain that integrity up to the point of sale, as well as in many cases handling (i.e. grinding, slicing, cooking) that item according to protocols that will not introduce new risks and even possibly control inherent risks that might, just might — the opportunity is quite low given the stepwise approach to safety outlined above — have slipped through the cracks.