As the supermarket industry anxiously awaits signs of fallout from the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States, it may take solace in the impending rollout of a comprehensive set of best practices relating to the control of E. coli 0157:H7.
The best practices, which are being developed by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Beef Industry Food Safety Council, or BIFSCo, will significantly contribute to the supermarket industry's body of food-safety knowledge because they will have been compiled by representatives of links in the entire beef supply chain, said a co-chair of the BIFSCo retail committee.
"Our meeting last January at the Beef Industry E. coli Summit marked the first time everyone from the rancher to the retailer to the restaurateur got together to discuss the E. coli control issue," said Craig Wilson, assistant vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Costco Wholesale, Issaquah, Wash. "It was a good start on an effort to come up with a set of best practices for all of those areas in the supply chain."
So far, BIFSCo-developed best practices have been published for three of five beef supply sectors: the producer, the grinder and the packer-processor. Retail best practices are still being developed, along with those for the food-service industry. Once completed, they will focus on the specific steps that food retailers are uniquely positioned to take to prevent E. coli-contaminated beef from entering their stores or, failing that, getting through to the consumer's table.
Because links closer to the producer level bear more responsibility for preventing E. coli contamination, Wilson said retail best practices will focus on limiting the spread of any bacteria that may slip through the supply chain. The guidelines, for instance, will likely encourage retailers to mimic the comprehensive supplier-screening and monitoring techniques that large restaurant chains employ to minimize risk. Including such a tactic in the best practices, Wilson said, is a direct result of involving all levels of the beef supply chain in formulating the guidelines.
"The majority of the responsibility falls on the vendor, and there's no way for a retailer to introduce E. coli into beef products. But retailers do have a responsibility to ensure that temperatures are maintained, that there's no possibility of cross contamination, and that those who grind beef in the store have intervention strategies in the event contamination occurs," Wilson said. "The real focus of retail best practices will be in a couple of key areas: working with vendors to ensure they're doing what's required on their end, and developing a consumer education component to ensure that customers are made aware of the importance of cooking temperatures and meat handling at home."
The guidelines will be comprehensive and specific; they'll also be designed to account for the fact that not all retailers will either need or be able to implement a full-scale E. coli control regimen. For instance, while a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point approach might be appropriate for national retailers engaged in large-scale product preparation, more modest standard sanitation operating procedures might make sense for smaller retailers. Those types of basic prevention guidelines are likely to get a lot of attention in the BIFSCo document.
Bo Reagan, vice president of research and knowledge management for the Denver-based NCBA, said the group's retail best practices will be scalable to all types of retail operations, a focus that other pathogen-control documents may not have emphasized.
"While groups like the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association have developed some recommendations, a lot has been done for the major players," Reagan said. "Our document will be designed to enable retailers to pick and choose recommendations that fit their operations. Some won't have the money to out go out and spend millions on an intervention system."
A major element of the best practices that would be comparatively low-cost will emphasize consumer education. Suggestions will focus on stronger commitments to putting safe-handling messages more prominently on beef packaging, and providing proper-handling literature at store level.
"Retailers have the greatest contact with the consumer, so we realize that a lot of education can be provided at that point," Reagan said. "The consumer has a major role to play in maintaining the ultimate safety of our products by cooking meat carefully and properly, and eliminating cross contamination. There are common-sense points that we need to keep reminding people of."
Consumer education was also a component of the ground beef-specific, pathogen-control guidelines FMI unveiled last May. Yet, the major focus of its "Total Food Safety Management Guide: A Model Program for Raw, Sold, Ready-to-Cook Ground Beef" was on store-level controls that should be invisible to the consumer. The guide was heavily oriented to HACCP procedures, though designed to work in retail operations of various sizes -- from small independents to large chains.
At the time of their release, Jill Hollingsworth, FMI vice president of food-safety programs who also co-chairs the BIFSCo retail committee with Wilson, hailed the FMI guidelines as constituting a proven method of minimizing the chance of contaminated ground beef reaching the consumer. Risk assessment, identification of control points, good retail practices and examples of standard operating procedures are key elements of the guide, which was developed by microbiologists, meat science experts, industry food-safety professionals and retail meat department managers.
NCBA sees its new set of pending guidelines as a good complement to those that have been developed by FMI and other associations. With food safety always a top concern, Reagan said there probably can't be enough attention paid to trying to eliminate risk and employing the expertise of a broad range of industry interests in doing so.
"If there's one thing we've learned over the past decade or so, it's that if we're going to control pathogens in our products, there is no silver bullet," he said. "Controls need to be in place all the way through the distribution system, and we need to get away from the tendency to always lay blame on others when food-safety issues would come up. We've learned that it takes a total effort to get safe products into the consumer's hands."