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MSU researchers assess meat safety
By Charmain Tan Courcelle
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A research and outreach program at Mississippi State University is helping the state's poultry industry meet new federal food safety regulations.
The food safety program, a partnership between the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and the College of Veterinary Medicine, will also enable the industry to continue to provide safe and wholesome poultry products for the consumer.
"New performance standards for poultry processors were imposed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service in 1996, but information on how certain food-borne bacteria spread and function during production and processing was lacking," said CVM researcher Hart Bailey.
"The poultry industry faced a challenge because the methods to control the spread of food-borne bacteria and to meet performance standards were not set up with these new regulations," he said. "Because of the limited understanding of the risk factors associated with each step of the production process, there was the potential that the industry would be vulnerable to plant closures from failure to comply."
Americans have come to expect food that is wholesome and healthy. Little wonder then that the highly publicized deaths and illnesses caused by food-borne bacterial pathogens in the 1990s produced a public outcry over food safety and spawned federal legislation to increase regulation of the meat and poultry industry.
Federal regulations require that meat and poultry processors limit the presence of Salmonella species, E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogenic bacteria in all meat products. However, the task is complicated because these pathogens are found naturally in the environment and live in healthy food animals without causing disease, Bailey said.
"We know that we'll never eliminate bacteria from the food animal's environment; the question is, how can we control these organisms in poultry products during production and processing?" Bailey said.
With CVM epidemiologist Bob Wills, Agricultural Research Service microbiologist Allen Byrd and the help of the Mississippi poultry industry, Bailey is identifying and evaluating risk factors that may contribute to the presence of bacteria on poultry products. In a preliminary study, the group is looking at variables such as environmental conditions, production and processing practices, processing machinery and equipment operation procedures, to test the impact of each on the levels of bacteria.
They are also determining the odds of finding food-borne microorganisms at different points in the production and processing line by sampling carcasses along the production line for levels of Salmonella bacteria. Bailey and colleagues are also looking for Campylobacter, which is not currently regulated but may come under federal legislation in the future.
The information from these studies should allow researchers to develop a risk assessment model. Poultry processors could then use this model to focus their efforts on select processing steps that have the greatest likelihood of reducing bacterial pathogens.
"These mathematical models can be used to help poultry processors devise risk management strategies that make good use of limited resources and still meet Food Safety and Inspection Service performance standards," Bailey said.
CVM has coordinated a monthly food safety roundtable as part of a statewide outreach program that brings poultry industry food safety personnel, Food Safety and Inspection Service representatives and university scientists together to discuss current regulatory issues and questions related to food safety. Regular industry participants represent the poultry, egg and red meat industries in Mississippi.
Bailey said the outreach program provides a forum to identify evolving research needs and to transfer results of risk factor analysis and other research to the industry.
Another part of the food safety program is a cooperative effort with MSU Extension food technologist Anna Hood that provides Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point training to meat and poultry industry personnel. Plants are required to have HACCP-trained staff to continue to operate under federal regulations.
"We are fortunate in this country to have the safest food supply in the world, and we hope our studies will equip processing plants to provide an even safer product to the consumer," Bailey said. "However, consumers should know that even with low bacterial levels, meat and poultry must still be handled as raw food products. The final safeguard for food safety is in food preparation and cooking, which destroys any potential pathogens that may be present."
For more information, contact Dr. Hart Bailey, (662) 325-7726