Al Carlson is a swine veterinarian, practicing in Morris, Minn. He has studied food safety and related on-farm practices at the University of Minnesota.
Q. Why are on-farm food safety issues becoming more prominent?
A. One reason is that we’ve had some food safety concerns arise in the past few years. E.coli: 0157 and Salmonella were traced back to pork in Denmark.
Food safety issues are becoming more publicized. The consumer is more aware of food safety issues. It doesn’t matter if it’s meat or vegetables, they want to know what they’re buying and eating.
Q. What are the most significant food safety issues facing the pork industry?
A. These issues fall into two categories – perceived and real. One perception consumers have is that you can contract trichinae by eating pork. Actually, the prevalence rate is so low it’s almost non-existent.
Another perceived issue that seems to be on the rise is antibiotic resistance. Resistance isn’t a problem with the product, but feeding antibiotics to animals can help create resistant bacteria strains.
Real food safety issues that can be linked to human illness are Salmonella and possibly toxoplasma gondii (a parasite whose primary host is cats and terminal host is people). The Center for Disease Control estimates that 50 percent of acquired infections of toxoplasma are from eating meat. The prevalence is low in beef and chickens, so people believe they can get it from eating pork.
Other organisms are Listeria and Yersinia, which can cause infections in people.
Q. Will producers have to take on more responsibility for food safety?
A. Yes, because for some of these pre-harvest food safety concerns the critical-control points are at the farm level. For example, auryomicin or penicillan are farm-based issues because that’s the only place the animal can come into contact with them.
As another example, the only way to prevent trichinae or toxoplasma is at the farm, not the packing plant.
Other organisms, such as Salmonella, can occur all along the pork chain. For example, if a plant is perfectly clean and disinfected, but a producer brings in pigs shedding Salmonella, the cleanliness is a moot point. However, if the pigs are Salmonella-free, and the plant is infected, there’s still a problem.
Q. What production areas will be most impacted?
A. It all depends on the target organism. But all production areas from small pigs to market hogs can be infected if, for example, their feed isn’t prepared properly.
Plus, we can’t ignore the fact that a good share of meat eaten comes from cull sows and boars. We have to include control procedures for those animals.
Q. Are programs in place to address these needs?
A. Some programs are trying to address food safety issues. These include the National Trichinae Certification Program, Minnesota Certified Pork, the Pork Quality Assurance Program, and company programs such as those for Premium Standard Farms and Seaboard Farms.
The Trichinae Program and PQA can provide a basis for other pre-harvest food safety plans. We need to use these as a template to build other programs. But all of these will take time; nothing is immediate.
Q. Could this lead to added costs for producers?
A. The industry tries to design programs without added costs, but if it happens, we try to reap production or efficiency benefits. For example, a large portion of the Trichinae Program deals with rodent control. Rodents can harbor parasites, which can then infect pigs. It’s phenomenal how many dollars I see spent on building damage from rodents. The program helps producers become certified, increases food safety and reduces building repairs.
If we improve biosecurity to limit Salmonella transmission and other diseases, such as porcine respiratory and reproductive syndrome and TGE, it will piggyback other procedures. My prediction is the gains will outweigh potential cost increases.
Q. What will it take to get producers interested in on-farm food safety?
A. We need to keep talking about the importance of food safety. A Salmonella outbreak that caused nine deaths in Denmark immediately prompted that country to implement a national food safety program.
U.S. producers and the industry must realize that we have to compete with and do a better job than the world’s other pork suppliers, otherwise sales and production will occur elsewhere.
Food safety hazards do exist. We’ve got to be proactive and participate in pre-harvest food safety programs that are available. If we’re sincere about wanting to improve the safety of U.S. pork, then producers have no excuses for not participating in these programs.