What happens after it leaves the farm? Producing and processing safe food

The production of all food must occur with public health and safety at the forefront. No foods are exempt from the possibility of making someone ill or being part of a costly recall.

There is no greater basic need of people than food and water. Farmers work hard every day to produce food for others to eat. Food processors work hard to transform raw commodities into nutritious ingredients and finished food products.

Producing food in a safe manner is complex, regardless of plant size or food type. The same four steps applied to consumer preparation of food to improve safety at home apply to food processors:

  1. Clean – wash hands and surfaces often and thoroughly.
  2. Separate – keep raw foods separate from cooked or ready to eat foods.
  3. Cook – thoroughly cook foods to kill any harmful bacteria present and use a food thermometer to determine when food is thoroughly cooked.
  4. Chill – rapidly chill and store any cooked food to prevent surviving bacteria from growing. But food processors have a lot of challenges to manage pathogen concerns and decrease the number of hard to pronounce microorganisms before the food ever makes it to a kitchen.

Statements such as, “When I was younger, we drank raw milk [insert choice food, i.e. rare hamburgers, unpasteurized juice, raw eggs, etc.] and never got sick,” are common when discussing food safety. However, bacteria continually evolve to survive and thrive in their surroundings and today’s bacteria are not the same as the bacteria of our grandparents’ generation. Some bacteria such as spoilage organisms and certain molds cause food to deteriorate in quality but will not necessarily cause illness. The dangerous bacteria are the ones that are pathogenic, meaning they have the potential to make people sick. In some cases, these pathogens cause death. Bacteria with names such as Shiga toxin producing escherichia coli O157:H7, listeria moncytogenes, and salmonella are commonly found in the environment in things such as soil and feces.

Meat, poultry and eggs are commonly associated with foodborne illness and thought of as likely causes of outbreaks. But recent large-scale recalls of flour, frozen vegetables and fruit are a reminder that no foods are exempt from the possibility of making someone ill or being part of a costly and damaging recall. As technology improves, and detection and traceability become commonplace for foodborne illness the number of recalls will likely increase.

Farmers can help food processors minimize initial bacterial loads on incoming raw products. Owners and management set the tone for food safety at all levels of food production and processing by having processes in place that require common-sense practices such as using continual reminders that handwashing is the single largest prevention against cross contamination. To achieve this, there must be closely located and functioning toilet and handwashing facilities available to workers. When dealing with raw products, using a clean and safe water supply on the farm is important – from wash and irrigation water to animal waterers. Minimizing the amount of dirt and manure on livestock that are sent for processing helps to reduce contamination related challenges at processing. Additionally, just as food processors must have safety plans implemented for buildings and grounds, farms can take measures to keep rodents and pests, including cats and dogs, out of certain areas, storage facilities and fields.

The meat industry is the most highly regulated food industry and includes each animal being inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) before, during, and after slaughter. Foods inspected by the USDA FSIS include all meat, poultry, processed egg products, and siluriformes fish (i.e. catfish). Food products that are made with more than 2 percent raw meat/poultry or 3 percent cooked meat/poultry as an ingredient (i.e. meat topped frozen pizza) are also inspected by USDA FSIS. All other foods, including shell eggs, are inspected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). State agencies also work with federal agencies to ensure food produced is safe and wholesome.

Meat processors that are inspected by USDA have been required to implement food safety programs such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) since 1996. In 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act became law and is intended to take a proactive approach to food safety for foods under FDA oversight. The FDA implemented the Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food rule on November 15, 2015. Registered food processors will have to comply with the rule over the next two years. Additionally, there are private food safety programs that are not regulated by the government but driven by retailers. These include Global Food Safety Initiative, Safe Quality Food and others.

Food safety programs often require employees to be trained in these programs. Michigan State University Extension offers several food safety related trainings for food professionals: HACCP (including meat, juice, seafood and other foods), Preventive Controls, ServSafe and more. Visit Extension’s commercial food safety page to find out more about upcoming trainings.

Jeannine is an MSU Extension educator specializing in meat quality. She is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science at Michigan State University. She can be reached at grobbelj@msu.edu. She has developed resources related to direct marketing meat and poultry; coordinates HACCP two-day certification seminars; and conducts other programming and research related to the production of beef, pork, lamb and poultry.

This story originally appeared in the January 2016 edition of the Michigan Farmer magazine.

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