Novel Beef Safety Intervention in the Spotlight
Yesterday morning a reader forwarded me a video released by Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), highlighting an announcement that the company is going to start testing all of their product for non-O157 STEC’s before releasing it into commerce. If you remember, BPI is the South Dakota-based company whose lean beef recovery process came under fire in early 2010. It was the subject of a New York Times article in which the headline questioned the product’s safety.
A BPI Refresher
That is really important to remember for several reasons. In the Times, the question posed (at least in the article) was whether or not the reduced alkalinity (see, BPI uses basic pH to kill pathogens, whereas many other processors use acidic pHs to kill pathogens) was effective at killing ill-doers like pathogenic E. coli and Salmonella. In the regulatory world, this is generally referred to as validating an antimicrobial intervention. What happened, though, was blogosphere inundation of the product quality and process. [For reference: (1) my post about the BPI process, and (2) other forms of lean meat recovery technologies]. Today, it seems, that BPI has been able to validate their pH-tweaking process as an effective intervention for non-O157 STECs. Below is the video announcement.
STEC? What the heck?
What are non-O157 STEC’s? They are Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) other than E. coli O157:H7 (the one that was ruled an “adulterant” in ground beef over a decade ago) yet have similar effects. Yes, they’re out there — you’ve probably heard about the outbreak in Europe recently for which Egyptian Fenugreek seeds were implicated as the cause. That was caused by a non-O157 STEC. So, why was that strain of E. coli, O157:H7, the one targeted years ago? Because it was the one implicated with the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak in the early 1990’s. Now legislators and regulatory agencies are being pressured to make six other STECs (those non-O157 ones) carry adulterant status as well. The folks over at FoodSafetyNews have posted summary of non-O157-related issues that have emerged since 2000 here. As for adulterant, what does that mean? A product is considered adulterated if the bacteria is present in any amount in the product — otherwise referred to indirectly as “zero-tolerance.” Last year, ground beef from a Cargill plant here in Pennsylvania was recalled by FSIS for supposedly being the cause of an E. coli O26 outbreak in New York.
Testing, easy as 1-2-3?
One of the reasons that non-O157 STECs have not been declared ground beef adulterants (yet) is that reliable and accurate testing methods for the bugs has not yet been developed. However, according to various articles this has been accomplished and more testing methods continue to be developed. In a news release from BPI, it was stated that they now have enough test kits to conduct testing of all their items before shipment. An important consideration regarding BPI’s testing of these products is that they are manufacturing a raw beef product that is frozen. This enables them to more easily test-and-hold (make sure everything checks out before loading out) products than, say, producers of fresh, highly-perishable, ground beef.
What does this mean?
Right now, BPI is doing something they don’t have to do from a regulatory perspective. Whether or not that is the best thing do to (the regs) is subject to many different considerations. Instead, this is an internal quality control measure that demonstrates their process’ effectiveness against multiple strains of pathogenic E. coli. Part of me wonders why the company feels so compelled to make this big announcement regarding their ramped-up testing protocol, yet I realize that this is a pretty big deal to the company, given that they’re the first to do it. And you also have to take into consideration that BPI is making a really great effort to be as transparent as possible regarding their process and product. They opened the doors to the producers Food, Inc., similar to how a Cargill slaughterhouse opened its doors to Oprah, and they also post all of their Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 results online (and presumably their non-O157 results soon?). On the flip side, this could serve as a example of how the testing can be managed thereby ushering in a new era of ground beef adulterants.