Squashing The E. Coli Bug – for Sep. 2, 2010

Ranchers worry about their cattle getting sick. For packers, the risk of making their customers ill is a major concern.

“Nothing weighs on my mind more than the battle with E. coli,” said Entz, vice-president/general manager of Cargill’s beef business unit in High River, Alberta. An agriculture engineer by training, he has worked for Cargill for 22 years and played a role in the plant’s construction.

To reduce the risk of contamination in the meat products that they sell, Cargill uses a “multiple hurdle” strategy, because current technology has no means of completely eliminating it.

These include a “hide-on carcass wash,” which occurs shortly after stunning and gutting, to remove as much contamination as possible, and a steam vacuum that raises the freshly slaughtered carcass up to 20 for six seconds, and a flourescent detection system to spot E. coli 0:157 bacteria.

WORKER BEHAVIOUR

Because their processing system depends on worker behaviour, a series of video cameras send live feeds to a central control room where every corner of the plant can be monitored in real time.

“We give the people there control of that operation,” said Entz. “If they see something that is not being done properly, they have the ability to stop it and take corrective actions.”

But all of those measures still have not been able to completely eliminate E. coli, so as a further measure, the plant runs up to 25,000 tests per year specifically looking for the 0:157 strain.

“That’s the final deterrent to make sure that the food that goes out of that plant is absolutely safe,” he said.

Because the bacteria reside in the digestive tract of cattle, vaccines such as Epitopix are being tested for application pre-slaughter, and the feed additive sodium chlorate has shown some efficacy in reducing positive tests. But conducting trials is problematic, because the percentages of positive animals is very low, and so far results overall have been inconclusive.

“Telling what’s good and what’s bad is hard when you hardly ever find it,” said Entz.

DESTROYING BACTERIA

Apart from using proper cooking methods at the consumer level, two methods have been proven to destroy pathenogenic bacteria. One, high-pressure pasteurization, has been widely used in Canada for the past two years, but since meat that has gone through the process turns brown or green, it isn’t a practical solution for raw meat.

The second, carcass irradiation, is believed by many in the industry to offer a reliable solution, but the labelling requirement continues to pose a diffficult hurdle.

“We’ve got a number of customers who have told us to go ahead, that they don’t care, they’ll put it on the package and they think they can make it successful, but they are the minority,” said Entz.

On the animal welfare front, the plant’s video monitoring system has proven useful, but to boost Cargill’s credibility, a third-party auditing system using company-issued handling criteria has been adopted.

“I get a report every single day on how we’re doing,” said Entz.

“If we’re doing something we’re not supposed to or something gets out of control, I get an email – technology is a wonderful thing – immediately.”

Cargill genuinely cares about how its animals are handled, and goes the extra mile to ensure slaughter is done humanely, he added.

“But unfortunately, for some of those organizations that are out there, caring is not enough.” [email protected]

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