I came to work for the State of Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries right when a major change in the way meat was inspected was being put into place. In 1993, there was a large E. coli outbreak caused by hamburgers sold by the Jack in the Box fast food chain. To make matters worse, the strain of E. coli was the 0157H7 strain that was far worse than your regular generic E. coli strains. This particular strain of E. coli was often responsible for the kidneys shutting down, often resulting in death. The hamburger patties traced back to the outbreak involved 11 lots produced on November 29-30, 1993. Seventy-three restaurants in four states, California, Washington, Idaho and Nevada, were involved in the recall and outbreak of the E. coli 0157H7. In the outbreak, over 500 people became ill by at least developing bloody diarrhea, with over 170 hospitalized and four deaths. At that point, government officials decided it was time to use all the tools we had available to reduce the risk of foodborne illness as low as possible.
The resulting change in meat inspection went from using the senses of sight and smell to detect whether meat or equipment was clean and sanitary to the implementation of HACCP and the Pathogen Reduction Regulation. HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. HACCP is a process that breaks down a processing procedure and looks at each step to determine if contamination could occur and, if it did, what could be done to control it. HACCP was actually developed by NASA to make sure the food the astronauts consumed was free of pathogens. If you are like me, you can see the wisdom in taking every precaution against the astronauts developing a case of diarrhea while in space. Anyway, that’s all it took to sell me on the principle of HACCP.
The regulation that called for the implementation of HACCP also called for microbiological testing of product and the environment, including equipment. Testing for pathogenic bacteria or microorganisms is a way to find out if your HACCP plan really works. It is important to note, just because a surface looks clean, it may not be free of bacteria. I tried to look up how many bacteria could fit on the head of a pin. The answers I found ranged from around 500 to over a million organisms. The sources were not that reliable; however, they were on the Internet and if it’s on the Internet, it has to be true. Well, the point is that bacteria are so small you can only see them under a microscope, so I know a huge number could fit on the head of a pin. It is through testing for organisms that we are able to know the cleaning program a meat facility has in place is actually working.
There is an old saying, "If you don’t want to find something, don’t look for it." In the meat industry, that is certainly not the case. They, along with inspection personnel, are constantly looking and testing for something we had rather not find. That is pathogenic organisms - bacteria that make people sick. We know, if it is there, it had better be found before it gets into commerce. Having said that, part of each meat establishment’s HACCP plans include a recall plan so that if any lot or day’s production of meat needs to be recalled, there is already a plan in place. Most of the plants we deal with simply hold the meat until the test comes back negative.
Notice I said most plants we deal with - with the emphasis on "we." It has been a few years since I have written about food safety. Some of you may not know that the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries has a meat inspection program. The program was established in the late 1960s and has provided service to generally smaller, often "mom and pop," plants that certainly have their place in the communities across Alabama. We also provide inspection to some of the small-to-medium plants across the state.
The USDA covers the large poultry processing facilities as well as some of the larger red meat plants scattered around. We do cover some of the smaller plants that are under federal inspection. When we are performing inspection in those facilities, we report to USDA, Food Safety Inspection Service. An establishment with a federal grant of inspection has the ability to ship their product across state lines or even out of the country. Plants operating under a grant of "state inspection" are not allowed to ship across state lines. Don’t ask me why, though. Several years ago, I was watching them discuss state versus federal inspection.
The man being interviewed was clearly misguided when he told the host, "If these state-inspected establishments want to sell across state lines, let them apply for and be granted federal inspection."
Well, that is an argument that has been going on long before I got here and will continue long after I have moved on. For the record, however, we operate out of the same regulations that the federal inspectors do. In fact, we are reviewed regularly to make sure we are complying with the USDA, FSIS rules. They review records as well as establishments. And you can bet they have a vested interest because the federal government pays for half of the expense of the program if a state chooses to have one.
The state meat inspection program falls under my umbrella. It consists of three veterinarians and 24 inspectors, including three field supervisors and is directed by Dr. Neeley Barrett. We have one compliance officer who covers the real estate from Tennessee to the Florida line and the Gulf Coast and from Mississippi to Georgia. To support the program, we only have one administrative assistant who keeps all the chainsaws that are being juggled in the air. These people, who are the meat inspection program, are an exceptional group. I always hear about the stereotypical government employee who is always looking for quitting time and counting days to retirement. I imagine those folks do exist, but not here. This group is very professional. They know their jobs. They represent Commissioner McMillan and the State Veterinarian well. But, most important, they are out there doing our part to make your food safer.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.