Meat and poultry plants have undergone massive, multiple revolutions since Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle" put them under the public microscope -- figuratively and literally. Laws have changed, and companies long ago came to realize safety is critical to their goodwill with customers and their very existence.
Today's industry is arguably safer than at any point in history in light of current HACCP programs and the broad array of food safety standards.
Surak says equipment vendors can help processors not just by supplying equipment that performs well and is easily cleaned and sanitized; vendors may be able to pre-validate their equipment in accordance with the documentation required in a plant's food safety management program. "If the equipment is pre-validated, then the processor can reduce its validation and verification activities by showing that the equipment is operating correctly under the plant's operating conditions."
Additionally, equipment that's operating well is less subject to unscheduled maintenance, as in a shutdown during production that could compromise safety and quality by backing-up processes and introducing distractions and risk.
Continuing risks and responses
Plant equipment and the way personnel use it -- and clean it -- plays a critical role in preventing pathogens from popping up. Recent recalls from hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) to meat and poultry products illustrate how critical plant equipment and operations are to food safety efforts.
- Companies across many segments of the industry have recalled hundreds of products following the March recall by Basic Food Flavors after Salmonella serotype Tennessee was found on HVP processing equipment at the ingredient supplier's Las Vegas plant. The FDA reported the company ignored analytical tests results dating to Jan. 21 and "continued to distribute HVP paste and powder products until Feb. 15 [and] manufacture HVP paste and powder products under the same processing conditions that did not minimize microbial contamination." One outcome: The FSIS in March said companies may need to alter formulations or labeling for products containing the flavor enhancer to remain in compliance.
- It wasn't the meat but a container of black pepper that was found to have Salmonella Montevideo. That forced Rhode Island-based Daniele International to recall more than 1.2 million pounds of ready-to-eat (RTE) Italian sausage products.
- Even with no reported illness, Huntington Meat Packing Inc., Montebello, Calif., had to recall 864,000 lbs. of beef products in January and 4.9 million more lbs. of beef and veal products in February. Possible E. coli O157:H7 contamination was cited but the real culprit, according to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), was that the company's products "were produced in a manner that did not follow the establishment's hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plan."
FSIS, in meat and poultry plants every day, validates the use of HACCP programs that encompass performance standards for a wide range of risks, including chemical (screening tests for dioxin and melamine; residue testing for pesticides, penicillin; etc.); biological (microbiological, bacteriological, viral, parasitic, mold, fungus, etc.) and physical (bone fragments, metal, sticks, bug mandibles, hair, droppings, etc.).
Processing and packaging equipment suppliers go a long way to foster plant sanitation and therefore food safety with features that inhibit microbial growth and enhance cleanability.
The management imperative to turn a profit can lead food industry critics to assume that in a recession, amid conservative budgeting and the consumer trend toward lower-priced products, companies will cut corners when it comes to food safety.
"I don't buy that," says Keith Schneider, associate professor in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Dept. at the University of Florida (Gainesville). "The food supply today is probably safer than it's ever been. We're much better at finding problems and tracking them down. We have much better surveillance than we had years ago, by CDC and at the state level; and we also have 24-hour news, and we hear much more in the media about food safety incidents."