CHICAGO -- Michael Osterholm, a prominent epidemiologist at the Minnesota State Department of Health, Minneapolis, cautioned attendees at the Meat Industry Research Conference here that if the industry continued in its current path, "We are going to have a Hudson [Foods recall] every week."
During a luncheon, Osterholm told meat industry members that the issue of food-borne illness has never been more prominent or important than it is now.
"We are living in the world of many E. coli epidemics," said Osterholm, as he noted that levels of food-borne bacteria were increasing.
Osterholm said food-borne illness was a growing concern -- which many people were not aware of -- partially because of ineffective methods of reducing bacteria combined with a rise in new, emerging and drug-resistant types of infections.
As an example, Osterholm cited the fact that the Minnesota State Department of Health had been tracking campylobacter infections -- which have been linked to a rare disease and are sometimes said to be resistant to antibiotics -- and that over 90% of chicken cultures tested positive for it.
Although a 90% campylobacter infection rate may indeed be high, it does not necessarily represent an increase in bacteria levels, according to some experts. (See SN, Nov. 3.)
Osterholm said the present method of testing doesn't always detect the presence of E. coli. "Outbreaks aren't being picked up by microbiological testing," he said.
He urged the meat industry to be realistic about the efficacy of current testing methods. "You should say our testing program does not ensure an E. coli-free product."
He noted that although Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points were the right way to go, "it's not enough. Critical control points are not kill steps," he said.
Osterholm said he is convinced that "ionizing pasteurization is the answer to many of our problems," referring to the process of irradiation, which uses gamma or X-rays to reduce bacteria in food. (See SN, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3.)
"Without ionizing pasteurization, you are waiting for a problem day in and day out," Osterholm cautioned. "If you don't do it, we are going to get more outbreaks and have recall after recall. You need a kill step as insurance."
Although Osterholm added that he doesn't see the application of irradiation as a cure-all, he said that its implementation is one more thing that will help to prevent recalls.
Osterholm called the Hudson Foods frozen hamburger recall -- in which 25 million pounds of ground beef possibly contaminated with E. coli were recalled -- a disaster, but hastened to add that Hudson was not alone in its vulnerability. "All the red meat out there could have been a problem," he said.
He also questioned the behavior of Burger King, a Hudson customer that stopped using Hudson products after the recall. He asked, "How do you know that another meat source will be better?"
Osterholm also urged industry members to work together and be more supportive of each other in facing outbreaks and other essential food-safety issues.
"You are run too much by lawyers and public relations firms," he commented. "I think the industry has done itself a disservice by not hiring experts."