By: Heather Williams
According to CIDRAP (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy), 40% of all foodborne illnesses reported each year in the United States can be attributed to contaminated meat and poultry. Medical expenses related to this are astounding with $2.5 billion related to poultry incidents, $1.9 billion related to pork, and $1.4 billion related to beef. Not to mention the uncalculated losses associated with recalls. Overall, foodborne illness racks up quite a tab.
The Pew Charitable Trusts has recently published a report “Food Safety from Farm to Fork” meant to address this issue. Pew Charitable Trusts is a Philadelphia based independent nonprofit organization established by the children of Sun Oil Company founder Joseph N. Pew and his wife Mary Anderson Pew. Pew is a “global research and public policy organization still operated as a non-partisan, non-governmental organization dedicated to serving the public.” Their goal is to help shape Public Policy for the betterment of the citizens. This foundation heads many philanthropic agendas, but is currently focusing on “food safety from farm to fork.”
Focus of “Food Safety from Farm to Fork”
Pew’s Safe Food project, senior officer Karin Hoelzer, DVM, PhD explains the three primary recommendations Pew makes to farmers and stakeholders. These include the use of pre- and pro-biotics, anti-pathogenic strategies, and exposure reduction strategies. The main deliverable for this report was to assess pre-harvest interventions to reduce the amount of major foodborne pathogens such as Campylobacter, Escherichia coli 0157:H7, and Salmonella to reduce the amount of these pathogens making it into the food we eat.
Pew explains that controlling pathogens at the “farm level” has a positive downstream result, not just preventing illness associated with meat consumption, but potential manure runoff that could affect water supply and produce. Produce is another large contributor to the foodborne illness tab, in that they are heavily affected by water supply that can be contaminated from farm animal manure. The responsible first step is to prevent the spread of pathogens so that few pathogens end up in downline products, whether it is meat or produce.
The risk factors for each animal determine the preventative actions recommended to be put into place. “With the exception of biosecurity and feed and water safety, no single pre-harvest intervention is currently effective and feasible for all animal species, pathogens, and production system,” explains the authors. “Interventions must be tailored to the targeted animal species, pathogen, and production system, and applied at the most effective time and in the best manner for the given situation, be that immediately before slaughter or before the animal is even born.” For example, poultry would likely be treated differently than cows or swine. This is simply due to the nature of the feedlot and the individual mechanisms in each animal.
Most pathogens originate from the gastrointestinal tract and contaminate the meat though fecal matter, animal hides, and sometimes the slaughter environment during the slaughter process. The meat itself is generally not infected, but becomes contaminated during the act of processing. The report explains that while pre-harvest methods to reduce pathogens is a start, a comprehensive approach implementing safety initiatives before, during, and after harvest provides a much more significant impact. Hence the name “farm to fork” approach.
Call to Action
The report provides research that identified strategies to minimize and mitigate pathogen proliferation. For these activities to be successful, it requires action on the part of many different entities. It is a call to action, if you will.
The report is a call to action for Funding Agencies such as U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to research better pre-harvest food safety options, particularly in best management practices and biosecurity. They are urging funding for large field trials on new or more successful interventions for commercial operations as well as research on application protocols such as vaccine schedule timing.
The report is also a call to action for Federal Agencies to provide incentives for using pre-harvest safety interventions and improving current practices. The report urges federal agencies to improve the regulatory approval processes and open up the opportunities for using technology to expedite information such as whole-genome sequencing. Also, to strengthen interagency collaboration to improve collaborative between organizations for animal health and food safety.
The report is a call to action for industry as well. They urge industry to use individual pre-harvest interventions and emphasize biosecurity, feed and water safety, and basic animal health standards. This is where it all starts, and each farm must do their part to help control pathogens from entering the food supply.
The primary method of reducing the pathogens that make its way from the farm into the food we eat starts with the farm. The report discusses the three areas for intervention that farms can utilize that will work toward that goal.
Use of Pre- and Pro-biotics
The use of pre- and pro-biotics provide a competitive environment for pathogenic bacteria and if given early enough may even stave off pathogen production. A pre-biotic is essentially food for the healthy gut bacteria and a probiotic is actual live bacterial cultures used to improve microbial balance. The idea is that good bacteria use up resources and displace bad bacteria. According to the authors, the use of prebiotics and probiotics prior to slaughter helps reduce pathogenic bacteria in the intestinal tract. “This is a safe intervention that can be helpful to both limit antibiotic use and promote food safety,” said Hoelzer.
Anti Pathogenic Strategies
The use of vaccines and veterinary drugs or supplements help develop the animals’ immune response to pathogens to avoid the use of antibiotics which have adverse downstream human consequences. These supplements and medications specifically attack pathogenic bacteria. Medications such as sodium chlorate that is toxic to certain bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli. Or other interventions such as bacteriophages that attack harmful bacteria help control the pathogenic bacteria in the gut.
Exposure Reduction Strategies
The use of exposure reduction strategies such as access control, quarantine, and pest management help prevent and reduce the spread of pathogenic bacteria. Activities such as water and feed hygiene helps reduce pathogen contamination across the herd.
This is just a start to what can be done to help keep our food supply safer. The easier it is to implement these mitigating activities, the faster they can be put to use.