Biosecurity - a global concern
Basic animal proteins have become a global health concern. Aside from the ever-present problems of listeria, salmonella, and E. coli contamination, puzzling and insidious animal diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) and the new and highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 have added abundantly to the food processor's burden of food safety responsibility. And as the food marketplace becomes increasingly global, the challenges to processors worldwide grow.
"As an industry, we have to prepare ourselves. We will need to know what percent of our raw product will come from outside American borders and [build] our [safety] strategies accordingly," says Richard Bond, Tyson Foods president and chief operating officer.
Bond acknowledges an increase in U.S. biosecurity efforts since the 9/11 attacks. But, as the avian influenza challenge illustrates, biological villains are among the hardest to identify and control.
Low-pathogenic avian influenza has been common in America for at least six decades, cropping up in bird populations each spring with minimal impact on birds or humans. Avian influenza H5N1, a disease currently affecting Asian bird populations, presents a far more serious health threat. At this writing, the Chinese government has announced its intention to inoculate the 14 billion birds in its poultry stock - an almost impossible task.
Global health authorities see an outbreak of this deadly influenza in North America as highly possible, if not inevitable. How great is this threat to America's biosecurity? No one can say for sure, but at least some measures to deal with it are already in place.
Tyson raises chickens for its North American operations in enclosed facilities, all but eliminating contact with wild birds and other potential carriers of many diseases. Workers don protective clothing at poultry facilities to keep from spreading the disease.
The practice of "all-in, all-out" farming - moving birds of the same age in and out of production houses at the same time – is also deemed an important safety practice.
PROFILES OF POTENTIAL AGGRESSORS
Terrorists aren't the only threats to a food processing plant's safety and security. Aggressors come in a variety of shapes, sizes and profiles. Here, however, is a list of the high-percentage suspects from the FSIS Office of Food Defense and Emergency Response (OFDER):
Time for an irradiation comeback?
In 1993, five children died and hundreds more became severely ill due after eating undercooked hamburgers contaminated with E. coli.
"The product [ground meat] came out of a plant with several barriers in place to prevent [microbial] contamination," notes Richard Hunter, CEO and president of Food Technology Service Inc., Mulberry, Fla. "Those barriers failed. That's why processors must put up multiple barriers."
Had the hamburgers been cooked thoroughly, the outbreak would not have occurred either, Hunter notes, marking another breakdown in the system. But one measure not then implemented would also have done the job.
"Irradiation could have prevented five kids from dying and another 500 from getting sick," says Hunter. "We see irradiation as part of a multiple barrier approach. The good thing is that irradiation is an excellent barrier."
Food Technology Service provides contract irradiation service to food processors. Irradiation received its first clearance from the FDA for use on spices in the 1980s and has been approved since for poultry, ground red meat, oysters and pork, with shellfish and other approvals on the horizon.
To date, consumers have remained wary of the process (actually regarded as an "ingredient" under current food law). Wrongly, they associate it with radioactivity. Time and a small but safe history have eroded some resistance. With the potential of deliberate contamination by a food terrorist adding to the prospects of microbiological contamination in foods, processors - and maybe even the public - may be looking at the radura (at right, symbol of an irradiated product) in a whole new light.