Can We Test Our Way To Safe Food?

It seems to happen daily…another food recall is flashed across the news screen of our televisions and social media. Meat products are recalled for e-coli concerns…produce and spices test positive for salmonella…listeria is found in another processed item. With all of the attention given to these recalls, it is easy to understand why consumers might feel uneasy about the food they eat and begin to question our industry production methods.

While agriculture is working to address these consumer concerns by becoming more transparent in their dialogues, there is still a very large part of the food chain that has yet to step up to this challenge…our nation’s food processing facilities. Consumers understand that cows do not become hamburger, potatoes do not become French fries, and milk does not become cheese without some pretty extensive work behind the scenes. However, food processing – once an industry entrenched with skill and craftsmanship – has transitioned into an industry saturated with science and microbiology…the faint of heart need not apply.

As the owner of a small USDA-inspected meat facility, I see firsthand our government’s focus and commitment to safe food production. Not only is my facility closely monitored by the USDA for cleanliness and sanitation practices, we are also subjected to numerous product testings each month. The USDA issues random testing including carcass swabs, meat strips, ground and finished product all in search of the infamous microbiological pathogens knows as e-coli, salmonella, listeria, and Shiga-toxins. In addition, as part of my facility’s HACCP (industry talk for “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points”) and SSOP (“Standard Sanitation Operation Procedures”) my plant is also responsible for completing our own product testing and the results are shared with the USDA officials. All products are held pending the results of these tests, helping to ensure the food produced in facilities such as mine are completely safe for consumption.

While I embrace the role that science now plays in food production and safety, there is no doubt that larger, corporate-owned facilities have an advantage over small, independent food processors like me. Whereas I have to send my samples off to be analyzed and eagerly await the results (typically 5-7 business days) the industry giants are now equipped with their own scientists and testing labs so that results can be generated much quicker and at a much lower cost. Any “presumptive positive” results from my facility require further testing (requiring additional fees and product hold times) while these larger industry counterparts can immediately resubmit their tests until a negative result is achieved. The food safety standards for both operations – regardless of size – are “zero-tolerance” but the time and resources required to achieve this scientific level of acceptance are a much larger burden for the smaller facility.

Test Our Way to Safe Food?

As these food recalls continue to occur, I challenge consumers to not just focus on what has been recalled but to also examine why. Understand that e-coli and salmonella are naturally-occurring organisms and any scientific efforts by the USDA to fully eradicate them need to be coupled with adequate cooking times by the consumer. Invest in a food thermometer and allow temperature to determine product cooking times…not the color of the meat. Don’t just know your farmer, but get to know your processor also…while the food safety guidelines are the same, not all processors are created equal. All food is labeled with a USDA establishment number that can easily be searched to determine exactly where the item was processed and how far it traveled to reach your plate.

As the world’s population continues to increase and farmland continues to decrease, the future of our food is uncertain. While the pendulum is now swinging in favor a local food system, we need to be mindful that local processors are a key element of that movement and educate consumers of their plight. The USDA would love to believe that we can test our way to safe food, but small processors are not equipped to weather that storm without added resources and consumer education. Therefore, we must all come together to ensure that science never takes the place of consumer education and old-fashion common sense.

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