Washing Our Way to Cleaner Meat


Source of Article: http://www.swnewsherald.com/online_contentcrf/2008/09/es-aug5_meat.php

By SANDY MILLER HAYS, Agricultural Research Service
There's no shortage of bad news these days, is there? Gas prices, a roller-coaster stock market, soaring food prices... just "pick your poison."

So how about some good news for a change a great example of something that really, really works and resulted from research funded by your tax dollars? Here goes!



You've no doubt seen the news stories about outbreaks of illness caused by harmful bacteria in various vegetables, from spinach and tomatoes to an ever-widening list of suspects. Of course, fruits and veggies aren't the only types of food that have been implicated in food-poisoning outbreaks over the years; meat and dairy products have also had their uncomfortable moments in the spotlight.

But the U.S. meat industry is definitely benefitting these days from food safety research conducted by the scientists of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) at the agency's Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb.

After a multi-state outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections from hamburgers in the western United States from November 1992 to late February 1993 an outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed four children the ARS scientists in Nebraska began a massive investigation into E. coli O157:H7.

One of the most fascinating discoveries to come out of that investigation has been that the principal source of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef isn't somewhere inside the cow; it's the animal's hide.

Previously, most of the activities to try to prevent E. coli O157:H7 contamination of meat focused on eliminating the pathogen from the cow's feces. But the research at Clay Center led to a major shift in thinking, resulting in the ARS scientists' development of hide-targeted intervention techniques to reduce and eliminate pathogenic E. coli and other dangerous microorganisms from the ground beef supply.

Although E. coli O157:H7 can wreak devastation on the human body by deactivating ribosomes and destroying kidney cells, cattle can carry the same pathogens with no ill effects. The ARS research revealed that the pathogen tends to gather on the cattle's hides. This can become a serious problem if the meat becomes contaminated while the hide is being removed from the carcass.

First the scientists experimented with chemically removing the hair from the hide. This process proved very effective, reducing the bacterial prevalence from 50 percent to 1.3 percent in one study. But the process was prohibitively expensive, and therefore seemed impractical for widespread industry use.

So the scientists turned their attention to cleaning the hide before removal and there they hit the jackpot.

They developed a system in which the hide-on carcass is cleaned in a washing cabinet with high-pressure water to remove excess organic matter from the hide. Next, the hide is sprayed with an antibacterial compound. The scientists came up with an impressive list of compounds that proved effective, from phosphoric acid to substances with tongue-tangling names like cetylpyridinium chloride.

Remember that great Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door"? The U.S. meat industry has embraced the ARS scientists' "better mousetrap," and an estimated 40 percent of U.S. feedlot-raised beef cattle now undergo the washing treatment. By targeting the hides, this technology has reduced the national incidence of E. coli O157:H7-positive ground beef samples by 43.3 percent.

And the benefits reach beyond stopping E. coli O157:H7. Since the beef industry began using the washing cabinets, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also noted significant reductions in illnesses caused by the pathogens Listeria, Campylobacter, Yersina and Salmonella.

Two partner corporations American Fresh Foods and American Foodservice that use the hide-wash system have high praise for it. Those two corporations produce more than 350 million pounds of ground beef every year for supermarkets, commercial fast-food outlets, and casual dining. They sample their products every 20 minutes to test for E. coli O157:H7, and conduct more than 15,000 additional tests each year for other pathogens.

How do they describe the hide-washing system? As their chief food safety officer put it, "It's incredibly effective... It's almost unbelievable."

Don't you just love it when something really works? I do!


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