Welcome back to the jungle?

By Mark A. DeSorbo

The trusting walked to the killing beds only to be knocked out with sledgehammer blows, hoisted in the air by one shackled foot, and then stabbed in the jugular.

The pigs and cows wailed, but the so human-like protests fell on deaf ears as they bled to death, perhaps watching the men, who despite their best efforts, waded through the half-inch of blood that never drained.

The players in Upton Sinclair's literary work The Jungle butchered livestock furiously in Chicago's Packingtown, where conditions defied sanitization.

“There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs,” he wrote.

Ironically, The Jungle, published in January 1906, did not bolster Sinclair's main theme: The exploitation of immigrant labor and the need for socialism. Instead, it fueled the roaring fires of public indignation stoked over such scandals as the “embalmed beef” supplied to U.S. troops in the Spanish-American War of 1898, as well as the “muckraking” exposés of journalists like Samuel Hopkins Adams on deadly patent medicines.

Perhaps the most significant impact The Jungle had was how it influenced the first in a series of consumer protection laws — the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, which were passed within just six months of the literary work's publication.

Sinclair later wrote, “I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

Déjà vu or microbiological safari?

Nearly a century later, the public is still taking blows with an estimated 75 million food-borne illnesses and approximately 5,000 deaths each year, according to the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Moreover, recent adverse events have triggered the FDA, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the food processing industry, to react similarly to the way the elder factions did when The Jungle hit the shelves.

Last November, the USDA announced that it would intensify its testing program for plants making ready-to-eat processed meat such as hotdogs and deli meat [See “USDA beefs up meat testing program,” January 2002, p. 1].

The directive came in the wake of a listeriosis outbreak in the Northeast that killed seven people over the summer and led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. A Wampler Foods plant in Franconia, Pa., recalled more than 27 million pounds of cooked deli meat last October after identical strains of the listeria monocytogenes bacteria linked to the Northeast outbreak was detected by the USDA and CDC in floor drains at the facility.

The incident was perhaps the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, for just four months earlier, in July, ConAgra Co. (Greeley, Colo.) recalled more than 19 million pounds of ground beef that was tainted with E. coli. Inmates at three Colorado prisons ate the contaminated meat, while 28 people fell ill in California, Colorado, Michigan, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.

“These were very unique situations,” says Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Listeria, he says, is a ubiquitous germ that is responsible for about 500 deaths annually. It is often found in the intestines of healthy animals, including humans, and in soil, water and vegetation, and it can grow under extreme heat-up to 150 degrees-as well as in refrigeration, making it difficult to kill.

Initially, Cohen says, there were a lot more listeria illnesses than there were linked cases, but through extensive interviews with victims, the FSIS was able to pinpoint foods that may have been responsible for the outbreak.

“We'd get information from CDC and then gather product samples where people shopped, and then we identified the source, which led us to Wampler Foods and J.L. Foods (Camden, N.J.),” he says.

The FSIS deployed about 50 of its 140 consumer safety officers to investigate the Northeast listeriosis outbreak and J.L Foods, which recalled 4.2 million pounds of poultry meat that was contaminated with listeria.

“At Wampler, we took 125 product samples and put them through different tests, and we didn't find the outbreak strain in a product, but we did find it in two drains,” Cohen says. “At J.L. Foods, we did the same thing, and found the outbreak strain in two product samples.”

Those product samples were each divided into 13 25-gram samples and then cultured.

“You know within two days if it's a negative, but it takes five days for a confirm positive. We use the same method when looking for E. coli,” Cohen explains. “It's a sensitive test, and we've looked at using other tests, but the problem is the others do not give you the same accuracy.”

Determining just how much product to recall also depended upon when production equipment and surfaces were completely sanitized.

“In Wampler's case, they did it every couple of days. At ConAgra, they did it every 24 hours, so if we got a positive during a production run after the cleaning, you have to recall lots before and after that cleaning or sanitization,” Cohen adds. “That's why the recall totals became so much larger.”

Swift steps

ConAgra was already employing several methods of contamination control, including steam and lactic acid carcass washes to beat back E. coli. [See “E. coli-triggered recall sparks tighter contamination control measures at ConAgra,” Sept. 2002, p.1].

“Whether those interventions were being applied consistently was one of those questions the company had to answer, and that's why we had a team in there doing an investigation,” Cohen says.

At the time of this report, ConAgra, now known as Swift & Co., had committed more than $4 million to a host of upgrades designed to make its products safer. This expenditure is in addition to the some $30 million the company has spent in the last three years to improve production and food safety programs.

“The steps we are taking now are not final,” says Jim Herlihy, vice president of communications. “We don't view food safety as a goal. We see it as an ongoing challenge. There is no proven silver bullet. We need to make continual incremental improvements, anything that can help enhance the food safety process.”

The number one improvement was additional testing for pathogens on meat for hamburger and sausage, he said. Before the recall, workers at Swift only tested for E. coli 0157:H7, the deadliest strain, in trimmings and other cuts that were earmarked for ground beef.

Herlihy says the USDA did not test meat before the recall, but now does so randomly. Swift now tests 100 percent of its product lots, whereas before, it randomly sampled 30 percent.

“If we get a green light, we let it go. If not, we do more testing,” he says. “If it has E. coli, or another type of contamination, we either cook it to kill bacteria and use it in prepared foods, or sell it to a third-party who will use it to make non-petroleum lubricants.”

Like listeria, E. coli contamination stems from cattle feces and intestinal fluids that spatter when the animal is slaughtered, so Swift has added new procedures to keep excrement off the carcass, which is a very difficult task, says sanitarian Robert W. Powitz, principal consultant at R.W. Powitz & Associates (Old Saybrook, Conn.).

“There's a tube on the animal from the mouth to the rear that has to come out, and we expect to clean and skin that animal without any of the dirty parts touching the meat,” he says. “It's a very difficult thing to do.”

But it's not impossible, Powitz says, if cleaning objectives for everything—from as early on as the livestock to the process to the workers to the home—are put in place.

Those objectives, he explains, are the creed of the federal Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, a mandatory contamination control program for seafood processors since late 1997, and for all meat and poultry processors since January 2000. It became a regulatory requirement for large juice processors in January 2002, and has most recently become a must for small juice processors as well. [See Special Report: “Improving the recipe for food safety,” June 2001, p. 17, and “Contamination control in a food processing environment—Having HACCP helps,” May 2000, www.cleanrooms.com].

“How many chances do I have before I have a finished product to render that product safe? There are a ton of chances and that's what HACCP is all about, no matter if it is food or a pharmaceutical,” Powitz says. “The farther I go back to minimize contamination, the less I have to worry about a contaminated product coming out of my area.”

And having objectives that ring in the adage of safety from farm to fork is Swift's new mission.

“We're looking at this as a multi-step process,” Herlihy says. “With live cattle, we have instituted probiotics into feed to reduce E. coli bacteria in their intestines.”

In production areas, where carcasses are disemboweled and partially disassembled, additional lighting has been added to help workers find and trim contamination. “We also encourage workers to stop the line if they see a food- or work-safety issue to make sure that it's addressed,” Herlihy says.

Worker orientation has also changed, and employees are given primers on pathogens and contamination control. “We realize this is a people-intensive business and beyond the technologies, we have to make people as effective as possible,” he says.

Swift has also taken steps to reduce the chances of cross-contamination by placing carcasses farther apart, giving workers a second knife to use while the first is sterilized and allowing employees more time to check for contamination before the USDA's final approval.

Preventive measures a must

Sanitarians, like Powitz, balk at the mere suggestion that it's still a Jungle out there.

“These pathogens are nothing new. They've been around for a very long time,” he says. “Our surveillance is a lot better. I don't think there is more food-borne illness. It's just that we're now able to identify them and the sources.”

Many, like the volatile, intestinal Norwalk virus, which has docked cruise ships and sickened many throughout the United States, have eluded scientists for decades, but new techniques have brought it out of hiding, he explains.

“Before, we'd chalk it up to an infection, but not necessarily one that came from food,” Powitz says.

Ultimately, he adds, food safety comes down to being “a people thing,” adding that the preventive, or minimizing, measures need to have clear objectives that should be part of the culture in a process environment.

“We treat everything as objects, and that's how we get into trouble,” Powitz says. “We can't use the same techniques for numerous objects because they all have different cleaning priorities, and by that, I mean we can't put people in autoclaves.”

In a perfect world, those objectives would mean livestock is fed feed that reduces the E. coli and listeria pathogens found in the stomach and intestines. It would call for better employee training and accountability for proper gowning and regular hand washing. It would also mean public acceptance of irradiated food, and adhering to safe handling practice in restaurants, grocery stores and homes. It also means there cannot be a deviation in temperatures that keep food-borne pathogens at bay.

Many of these problems, Powitz claims, could be significantly minimized if the public would embrace irradiated food, a USDA-approved process that involves a precisely controlled amount of radiant energy that destroys harmful microscopic bacteria without affecting the nutritional content, taste or texture of the food.

“If they irradiated the meat, you wouldn't have these recalls,” he adds. “Then, if there was cross-contamination, you would only find it within the restaurant or household.”

Beyond that, and what it boils down to, is food safety becomes an issue of cost, and Powitz points out that contamination could be reduced significantly if such steps as antibiotic feed was fed to livestock and if on-the-clock time included gowning and hand washing. “It needs to become part of the culture, and what would make a difference is economic incentives—the same way a father sweetens the pot with a five dollar bill so his son mows the lawn,” he says.

Either way, Powitz adds, food processors can accept, establish and follow HACCP and its sanitizations program or reject food safety measures. “And what's the consequence of rejecting it?” he adds. “It makes sense.” lll


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