Animal Health Matters: Can food safety be improved at the farm level?

Russ Daly
Everyone in the chain from farm to fork has responsibility for food safety.

If you’re a beef or pork producer, you’ve likely been certified through a quality assurance program such as Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) or Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus). These programs work to enhance producers’ understanding of what it takes to produce high quality and safe beef or pork.

For these programs, food safety is touted as the most compelling reason for good production practices – and rightfully so. If the public has any worry – whether well-founded or not – about the safety of a product, they will choose something else.

The curriculum for these programs breaks down the different risks to food safety into chemical, physical, or biological threats. Every food production step has their own set of these threats to worry about, from the animals at the farm to the packing plant, processor, retailer, and finally the consumer.

An army of experts studies how to reduce these food safety threats at the slaughter plant, processor, and food service outlet stages. Part of my job is to help livestock producers understand those threats at the farm and animal levels. The result of all of this is meat, milk, and eggs that are among the safest in the world.

I believe producers and their veterinarians do a good job of reducing chemical food safety threats at the farm level. An example would be drug residues – amounts of antibiotics and other medications still in an animal’s system after treatment. Through careful attention to slaughter withdrawal and milk withholding times, the level of these chemical threats is extremely low. Physical food safety threats are even less common – a broken syringe needle left in an animal, for example.

But most food safety threats are “biological.” Certain bacteria and viruses can make their way from the animal’s environment, through slaughter and processing to survive cooking and handling, to ultimately make a person sick. You’ll recognize the culprits: Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli O157, to name a few.

In livestock production, we have to realize that these germs – whether they contaminate a saw blade at the processing plant or a cutting board in a kitchen – have their ultimate source from an animal. What’s incredibly daunting for livestock producers looking to raise wholesome, safe food is that these germs can be common and hardly ever cause illness in animals. Producers can’t see signs the germs are there, let alone have good options to get rid of them in an animal population.

These challenges can cause livestock producers to shrug with the thought there’s nothing they can do on their end. After all, slaughter and processing plants have cleaning regimens, and restaurants and family cooks have cooking temperature and handling recommendations to follow.

If producers can’t prevent their animals from harboring these germs, shouldn’t it be up to these others to clean up their acts when a foodborne germ outbreak sickens people?

Certainly. But does that mean livestock producers have no role at all in reducing foodborne illnesses from farm-origin germs? That’s a really good – and important – question; one without clear answers.

What if there was a management practice, a time of year, a breeding strategy, or a feed additive that greatly reduced the numbers of foodborne germs carried by your animals – so that the downstream parts of food production could contend with fewer germs? Would you implement those changes? At what cost?

More good questions to ponder. Unfortunately we know very little about what interventions might help. In many cases, we don’t even understand the ecology of these germs in animal populations.

Herein lies a role for livestock producers. Answering those questions requires studying animals in real production settings. Are you willing to help advance this knowledge by letting some of that work be done on your operation? Or would you opt out, out of the concern you’d get blamed for something that made someone sick? Those concerns are legitimate, but there are ways confidentiality can be maintained.

Further improvements in food safety could depend on studying the ecology of foodborne germs in our livestock populations.

Everyone in the chain from farm to fork has responsibility for food safety – as a livestock producer, are you willing to help make it even better?

Russ Daly

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.