The food safety regulatory arena in the United States will continue to evolve, driven by a wide range of issues from new testing capability to public perceptions, a former senior US Department of Agriculture official told beef exporters yesterday.
Former under-secretary for the office of food safety in the USDA, Dr Richard Raymond, provided insights into likely food safety trends in North America and what Australia might have to do to maintain market access during the 2011 Australian Meat Industry Council’s annual gathering on the Gold Coast.
Unlike his previous visit to the same conference in 2007 when still employed by USDA, Mr Raymond was on this occasion able to speak more openly as a private citizen.
During his lengthy term in USDA under the Bush administration, he was responsible for overseeing the policies and programs of the US Food Safety & Inspection Service.
Dr Raymond suggested that public perception remained a big issue in the field of food safety in the US. He illustrated how ground beef tended to get a bad rap when it comes to associations with food borne illness in the US.
Of the 60,000 cases of e.coli 0157 illness reported in the US each year, only 60pc of those are sourced from foodstuffs, with the remainder come from sources like petting zoos, drinking water, recreational water or person-to-person contact.
Of that 60pc, only 20pc (about 7000 cases) came from consuming ground beef, he said.
“Even if we were to halve the rate of e.coli 0157 illness from ground beef, to just 3500 cases a year, that would still leave almost 60,000 people being sickened each year by e.coli from other causes – even major advances in ground beef would not solve the e.coli problem,” he said.
He said too often, statistics to do with food borne illness were not well understood in the US.
Recent analytical testing developments had allowed identification of common sources of illness, like a DNA fingerprint. This meant that many more outbreaks of e.coli were being identified back to a specific source, and the US public was reading more frequently about these outbreaks, the defined sources and the subsequent product recalls in the media.
“That leaves the impression with consumers that we must be doing worse, in terms of controlling e.coli. But the truth is, we are doing much, much better,” Dr Raymond said.
Coached by groups like PETA, which had an anti-meat agenda, two US media outlets last year decided to carry out an ‘expose’ about ground beef.
One described how the US National School Lunch Program (which feeds lower socio-economic strata children probably their best meal of the day) had an e.coli testing program that did not meet the same standards as those required by McDonald’s restaurants.
“The newspaper’s suggestion was that McDonalds had safer beef than the nation school lunch program. What they chose not to mention in the article was that the school lunch program had had no e.coli illnesses associated with it, nor product recalls, over the past 20 years.”
In the period from 2004 to 2007 the incidence of e.coli positive tests and recalls was on the rise, and cases of human illness was going in there wrong direction. But after interventions, numbers fell to the lowest registrations in history by 2009. Among a range of food borne bacterial pathogens, numbers were down 23pc, and specifically for e.coli 0157, down 41pc.
“Authorities in the US today estimate that there are 20 deaths per year from e.coli contamination (down from 60-70 in 1990).”
“But to put that into context, 2000 Americans die each year choking on food (usually beef steak being consumed by an elderly gentleman who might have had too much to drink) at the same time; and 36,000 deaths each year from influenza, totally preventable. Yet nobody seems to be concerned about that, in the same way that they were about e.coli.”
He said evidence of rises in some food toxins like shigatoxin bacteria, were occurring largely because it was now being tested-for more frequently.
Any product recall in the US was basically a public relations issue, rather than a public health issue, Dr Raymond suggested.
“The point is there is an extremely small percentage involved in many recalls, from small grinders. But every time the American public reads about a recall of ground beef, it is a reminder that the product is not sterile,” he said.
Dr Raymond divided the remainder of his talk into three sections: what the US was currently doing in the regulatory environment; what would probably happen in the next five years; and what might possibly happen.
Undoubtedly the biggest issue for Australian exporters over the past 12 months has been the negotiation with Government over a return to full cost recovery for AQIS export certification inspection charges and the development of a new meat inspection model known as the Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS).
The Australian industry has also had to respond to requirements for more intensive testing of imported meat in the US for e.coli 0157 and implement a robust testing program in Australia that meets US requirements.
The issue of food safety has remained a sensitive one in the US, both politically and from a consumer and regulatory perspective. E.coli 0157 has been declared an adulterant and there is the possibility in the near future that another six non-0157 strains will be similarly declared, adding further uncertainty and cost to export activity.
Battle is with unions
Commenting on these developments, Dr Raymond said as Australia approached the implementation of its AEMIS inspection model, its biggest threat was the union system in the US, not regulators.
Currently risk-based inspection was mandatory under the Food & Drug Administration, but was absolutely denied under USDA-based inspection for beef.
“Why? Because the FDA has no union employees, while the USDA has 6500 union members that are the inspection workforce. Australia needs to remember that when it starts to talk about the new AEMIS inspection system.”
“Australia’s biggest problem is not going to be the bureaucrats, it will be the union. If there is anything done in Australia through AEMIS that decreases the presence of US government paid inspectors, that is a threat to the 6500 members that can stop risk-based assessment in its tracks, even though it is the right thing to do,” Dr Raymond said.
Among the probable changes that Dr Raymond sees over the next five years were:
The ‘big six’ pathogens that cause 80 percent of the ‘non-0157’ illnesses in the US are likely to join e.coli 0157 in being declared ‘adulterants’. Huge outbreaks this year in Europe and Japan of 0111 strains would be likely to hasten that, but no change was likely to occur until after the presidential election, because president Obama did not want to risk upsetting the meat industry, which was a powerful lobby force in the US. November 2012 was Dr Raymond’s best guess on enactment.
Two large US beef industry stakeholders – Costco supermarkets and Eldon Roth’s Beef Products Inc – were already testing for non-0157 strains, and others like Wal-Mart were likely to follow.
“If enough industry-based testing occurs, then perhaps it will be declared an adulterant,” he said.
“That would mean Australian trim coming into the US would be tested for other strains, as it is for 0157 currently,” he said.
Since the US had started testing imported trim (Canadian, Australian and other) as well as domestic, there had been 97 positive detections, seven of which were from international sources and including three from Australia.
Less likely, but possible changes in food safety regulatory measures in future included greater attention on antibiotic use in beef and poultry.
“Often it is not accurate discussion when it is raised in the media,” Dr Raymond said.
“There has been a call for a ban on all non-therapeutic use of antibiotics used in animal production, which would devastate the industry. Someone needs to keep shouting out that most of those antibiotics are not even used in human medicine, and the debate should focus only on those antibiotics used in animal feed that used in human health.
"The industry generally has not done a good job of defending its use of antibiotics in animal production, and consumers have not done of a good job of trying to get educated on the subject.”
Other possible, but unlikely developments included testing of individual beef cuts for e.coli contamination. Some ‘rather staggering’ numbers had come back about the amount of positive e.coli 0157 in samples bought from retail supermarkets in the US recently.
“Once the consumer starts to see more reports like these, it may bring a force towards more testing in this area,” Dr Raymond said. “How to do this with least disruption to industry time and effort is a challenge.”
Discussions could ultimately focus on low-dose radiation, and vaccination against e.coli in the feedlot. A ‘farm-to-fork’ strategy towards e.coli could also ultimately emerge.
“There are things that can be done, pre-harvest. We could have a national vaccination program for e.coli. We vaccinate children against multiple diseases – why not vaccinate cattle to prevent shedding e.coli? Pro-biotic use on farm could also be helpful.”
Dr Raymond noted, however, that feedlot cattle in Australia were remarkably clean-coated, compared with what was commonly seen in US feedlots where cattle could be covered in dags.
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