Jim Dickso is a microbiology researcher and professor. He's also the chairman of the Microbiology Department at Iowa State University.
Q What are some of the top food-safety issues for the pork industry?
A The main issues are Salmonella in fresh products and Listeria monocytogenes in processed meat products. These are not really new issues to the industry. They are "new" to many consumers, however, and we may need to help them understand these issues.
Overall, pork and pork products are "low-risk" foods. That is, they are rarely linked with foodborne illnesses. This is in part due to the way most consumers handle and cook their pork. However, consumers should be careful to warm up products containing pork, such as hot dogs, before consuming them. Although these meats are fully cooked, on rare occasions Listeria monocytogenes can contaminate the product. Listeria can survive chilling, but is readily killed by warming the product.
Q Why should producers be concerned about these issues?
A If the consumers lose confidence in a product, or become concerned about a new food-safety issue, the likely result is that they will buy less pork – at least for a while. When the demand for pork goes down, the retail price of pork and the price of live-hog prices also will go down.
Q What steps can the pork chain take to alleviate food-safety concerns?
A Many consumers don't realize the food-safety measures that everyone in the pork chain is currently taking. It is a success story that the industry needs to tell.
What all parties in the chain need to be wary of is not to become complacent. While the industry has an excellent safety record, we don't want to be surprised one day, and appear to be lax in our efforts.
Q What future actions might producers face to ensure product safety?
A The best advice to offer producers is to maintain the best possible conditions for their animals. This results in improved herd health. Also, implement practices that reduce or eliminate food-safety concerns such as the Pork Quality Assurance program.
Q What is the consumer's food-safety responsibility?
A Consumers are a vital part of the food-safety system. No matter how you fit into the pork industry, we are all consumers. We all need to handle our food properly, by keeping fresh uncooked products separate from cooked product. Washing our hands after handling any raw foods is critical, too.
Consumers have a right to expect pork to be produced under the best possible conditions. At the same time, no current process can deliver fresh pork to the consumer with an absolute guarantee that it is free of bacteria. For this reason, consumers need to follow some commonsense safe-food practices. Meats should be cooked until the juices run clear, and raw and cooked foods should be kept separate. It is a reality that poor consumer practices can undo the results of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in food-safety investments made by the pork industry.
Q What is the shelf life of today's fresh pork products?
A The typical shelf life of vacuum-packaged fresh pork is 5 to 6 weeks. Shelf life is influenced by the number of bacteria on the pork cut, the type of packaging and the storage temperature. In laboratory experiments, vacuum-packaged pork can have a shelf life of two months, but those conditions are hard to achieve in the industry.
You may ask why would we want a 7 or 8 week shelf life for fresh pork? Keep in mind that it may take 21 to 25 days to ship fresh pork from the Midwest to Japan, and it may take another week to move it through the country's distribution system. By the time the product actually appears in the store, it may be 30 days old.
Q There's a lot of talk about food safety and food security – are they similar or different issues?
A Food security has taken on a whole new meaning in the last year. Until September 2001, biosecurity meant keeping out unwanted diseases from your animals. Unfortunately, in the world that we now live, there is a possibility of deliberate contamination of our food supply. While this is still relatively unlikely to occur, we should all be vigilant. I don't need to elaborate on what an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would mean to the U.S. animal industries. If something looks suspicious, report it.