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  • Are Current U.S. Animal Farm and Feedlot Food Safety Practices Sufficient?

Does the U.S. need increased interventions, controls, and incentives for pre-harvest food safety for food animals? According to a new report from Pew Charitable Trusts, “Food Safety From Farm to Fork,” the answer is a resounding Yes. Although the meat and poultry industry practices a wide range of food safety interventions through production and distribution, the report advocates wider use of evidence-based, pre-harvest food safety interventions on farms and feedlots. The purpose is to reduce the risk of food-animal contamination by pathogens that live in and around them before they reach the slaughterhouse – where USDA oversight begins. This is not to say that no farms or feedlots are using pre-harvest interventions, however, the reports states that there are cost-effectiveness questions for many of those interventions. Acknowledging the inherent challenges, the study discusses the current state of farm and feedlot food safety in the U.S. and foreign countries, identifies roadblocks, and provides recommendations for an integrated approach that relies on multiple components, not a single isolated intervention. With the exception of biosecurity and food, water, and housing – which are key for all pre-harvest animal operations, the study states that there is no current pre-harvest intervention that is effective and feasible for all animal species, pathogens, and production systems. Thus, interventions need to be targeted to these and applied at the most effective time and manner. Additional issues and roadblocks to implementation the report states as most significant are: Lack of a single agency with clear authority to require a particular intervention or set on-farm standards to limit bacterial contamination. Lack of economic incentive. Limitations in scientific knowledge and data. Logistical and physiological efficacy factors. The ubiquitous nature of some pathogens, with those of major concern varying by animal species. Animal species and industry structure differences. Additionally, the efficacy of many interventions is not clear because of a lack of “large field trials on commercial operations, conflicting results in experimental studies, limited understanding of the external factors affecting efficacy, and low quality of individual studies that precludes meta-analyses and systematic evaluations. Cost-effectiveness, feasibility, and regulatory challenges are often also unclear.” To counter these, and provide a path for future efforts, the study made the following recommendations, focused toward each stakeholder: Funding agencies (e.g., USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture): Extend funding for research into biosecurity, best management practices, and optimization of commercial operation practices; synergistic or antagonistic effects of interventions; efficacy variability in farms and operations; the science, mechanism of action, potential benefits/consequences and cost-effectiveness of promising interventions (such as pre- and probiotics), including their use as alternatives to antibiotics. Fund field trials. Consider incentives, such as grants and public-private partnerships, to spur research and development. Federal agencies: Provide regulatory or economic incentives for the implementation of pre-harvest food safety interventions, especially for biosecurity and management practices, prioritizing interventions through use of risk assessment and other such data. Improve the regulatory approval processes to ensure product safety, consistency, efficacy and quality without delaying distribution (e.g., use of whole genome sequencing). Improve collaboration and communication among all stakeholders, especially interagency collaboration and responsibility, to increase the availability and use of promising interventions. Industry: Emphasize individual pre-harvest interventions as one part of a herd health management program, evaluating ancillary benefits; provide biosecurity, feed and water safety, and basic animal health standards as a prerequisite for all meat and poultry operations. For small operations, consider the feasibility and value of, as well as incentives for, upstream pathogen eradication programs upstream. All Stakeholders: Encourage data sharing between industry, academia, governmental researchers and regulatory agencies for greatest benefit. Public-private partnerships are likely to be the most feasible approach – if legal and logistical challenges (such as privacy, transparency, and information technology compatibility) can be overcome. The study also cites that a number of countries have instituted successful, comprehensive food safety control programs that include a strong pre-harvest component. The programs are often partnerships between government and the livestock industry—initiated using government appropriations and sustained with industry dollars. For example, Sweden, Finland, and Norway adopted aggressive measures to control Salmonella in poultry production. Sweden requires the heat-treating of feed before delivery to a poultry farm, farm biosecurity measures (such as removing litter between flocks), and quarantining and testing of imported birds. Monitoring continues through production with all positive flocks destroyed, and producers compensated through insurance. Finland and Norway adopted similar programs, with Finland requiring extensive Salmonella testing, and separate handling and restricted use of products of contaminated animals. As a result of their programs, the incidence of food products with Salmonella in Sweden is less than 0.1 percent, and in Finnish and Norwegian poultry meat, less than 1 percent – and all have seen improvements in public health with fewer human salmonellosis cases. In the EU, a 2003 directive began requiring member countries to create national control programs for feed and primary production of animals and introduced requirements for testing and sampling of zoonoses and zoonotic pathogens at several points. It began with swine and now focuses on poultry, eggs, and pigs, and covers all Salmonella serotypes with public health significance. As a result, the number of salmonellosis cases in the EU is in decline. Such results, however, don’t come cheap or easy. As stated in the report, countries’ low to no prevalence of Salmonella “would not have been possible without the collaboration and buy-in among all stakeholders, the lasting commitment to sometimes costly and painful actions such as the depopulation of pathogen-positive flocks, and the continuing measurement and tracking of success.” About The Acheson Group (TAG) Led by Former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods Dr. David Acheson, TAG is a food safety consulting group that provides guidance and expertise worldwide for companies throughout the food supply chain. With in-depth industry knowledge combined with real-world experience, TAG’s team of food safety experts help companies more effectively mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies, and ensure regulatory and standards compliance. www.AchesonGroup.com

Are Current U.S. Animal Farm and Feedlot Food Safety Practices Sufficient?