ANALYSIS - The meat processing industry in the US is succeeding in effective control of E.coli 0157 in the meat plant, but needs to step up its controls on the farm and before animals reach the slaughterhouse, writes Chris Harris.
Dr Guy Loneragan from Texas Tech University speaking at the recent International Production and Processing Exposition in Atlanta said that the beef processing industry in the US now has a good microbial control process.
This has been developed through the increased regulatory controls and the use of HACCP systems in the meat plants.
He said that there is a downward slope in the incidence of E.coli food poisoning among consumers because of the interventions that have been put in place in the processing plants.
He said that the US industry had easily hit the targets set for the number of incidents of E.coli food poisoning for 2010 and the targets have now been lowered to be hit by 2020.
Dr Loneragan said that despite the reduction in cases of E.coli 0157:H7, the number of cases of non-0157 STEC appeared to be increasing, but this largely because labs are testing more and looking more for non-0157 STEC.
"There is the question is it actually increasing or are more labs looking for it," said Dr Loneragan.
He added that it was a fair assumption that if the interventions that are being put in place in the meat plant are being effective against E.coli 0157, then the interventions are likely also to be effective against non-0157 STEC.
Because the meat plants are achieving such high success rates of controlling and containing E.coli in the plant, Dr Loneragan said that there was little more that could be done to improve control measures.
However, incidents could be further reduced if tests and action was taken in the raw commodity - on the cattle before they reach the plant.
He added that there is also an assumption in the industry that cattle are the primary reservoir for E.coli, but recent outbreaks of the illness have shown that there are also many other sources.
However, as there is an assumption that the movement of E.coli is from the farm to the processing plant from cattle to the beef product to the consumer, there is an obvious need for preharvest controls including vaccines, the use of sodium chlorate and biophages as well as controls in the processing plant.
Dr Loneragan added that studies have shown that there is a rise of incidence of E.coli food poisoning in the summer twice those in the winter and there should be an aim not to necessarily eliminate E.coli through preharvest controls, but to reduce the prevalence of the pathogen to a level that the meat plant can easily control.
"Can we decrease it to a winter time level?" said Dr Loneragan.
"With intervention we can get a winter distribution of the prevalence."
He said that recent studies have shown that interventions in preharvest cattle can reduce the prevalence to a controllable degree and the cost of the interventions was exceeded by the savings in public health costs.
Studies have also shown that a 40 per cent reduction in the prevalence of E.coli on cattle had produced a nine per cent reduction in illness and an 80 per cent reduction of the distribution of the pathogen through preharvest intervention had reduce d illness by 19 per cent.
He said that even a poorly efficacious intervention if widely adopted had a strong impact in reducing foodborne illness in humans.
However, he said there needs to be a culture change to ensure that there is a positive uptake in preharvest interventions and the industry needs to realise that a broad application of these interventions will have a positive impact on human health and reduce foodborne illness.