What’s more important to the poultry industry than food safety? Nothing, according to a nine-man panel made up of some of the U.S. poultry industry’s most influential leaders.

The Poultry Leadership Roundtable, sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health and WATT, examined the risks and challenges involved with food safety and identified five keys to insuring the food safety of poultry. The following principles were gleaned from the roundtable’s wide-ranging, two-hour discussion:

  1. Continually invest in and improve food safety processes – Reinvestment of capital above depreciation levels will be needed to implement new processes and technologies. Continual process improvement will be necessary.
  2. Focus pathogen reduction efforts – The low-hanging fruit in the industry’s food safety efforts has been picked. Achieving new, meaningful, reductions in foodborne pathogens may require focusing on organisms of human significance.
  3. Expand food safety research – A host of research needs exist, including getting a better understanding of pathogen ecosystems and campylobacter.
  4. Involve the entire production and supply chain in the food safety effort –More and better collaboration is needed between industry, regulators, academia and consumers.
  5. Communicate about food safety – Industry must communicate the value and safety of its products to consumers. Educating consumers will become more important in the future.

Their conclusions reflect that the quest to produce safe poultry is complex in nature and extremely challenging in execution. It effects, and is affected by, everything in the production and supply chain, from feeding, breeding, hatching and grow-out operations to processing and, ultimately, the food safety attitudes and practices of customers and consumers.

If poultry products are not safe, the roundtable members acknowledged, processing plants grind to a halt, workers are idled, and customers stop buying. Most significantly, the health of consumers is put at risk. In a word, food safety’s importance to the poultry industry is paramount.

Food safety success breeds business success  

Pilgrim’s president and CEO Bill Lovette said, “At the end of the day, we sell trust and confidence in our food supply. Therefore, we must focus on continued improvement to insure consumers that our products are safe, nutritious and wholesome.”

Consumer confidence is the bedrock on which industry success ultimately is built. On it depend the availability of capital for investment in poultry businesses; public support for a regulatory environment that allows companies to invest in infrastructure and technologies to produce affordable and safe poultry; and stable markets for the industry’s products.

Foodservice customers seek dependable food safety  

A successful track record in food safety tends to lead to success in all these areas. It also fosters a business climate conducive to strong supply chain partnerships and investment by customers and suppliers.

Chick-fil-A’s purchasing manager Brian Coan said, “From a foodservice operator’s perspective, we really value a supplier community that has robust and sustainable food safety requirements in place. Suppliers that have state-of-the-art operations and cutting-edge food safety programs help instill trust and confidence. Those are the two biggest things that customers put in our hands when they walk through our doors or those of any other foodservice operator. In the foodservice business, we need to have confidence that any poultry product we prepare is of the utmost food safety.”

A lender’s assessment  

Carl Blackham, managing director of the food and consumer group at Harris Bank, described how food safety performance sets the tone for investment. “The risk of food safety is a risk to the enterprise and something that we assess in our lending. If an industry has persistent food safety problems, it is less attractive to put capital in those businesses. That’s true from the standpoint of outside investors and lenders. There is also reputational risk. How those risks are mitigated is important. Investors would have to consider whether or not they want to invest in an industry that has a negative perception in the public arena.”

Public sentiment also influences the level of research-and-development investment by suppliers in technologies which potentially enhance the industry’s ability to produce safer products. Dr. Jon Schaeffer, director of veterinary services for Pfizer, said, “The consumer ultimately drives the political environment, which drives the regulatory environment. That affects our ability to make the investments necessary to produce biologicals and pharmaceuticals that address both poultry health and food safety concerns.”

Progress in reducing salmonella prevalence  

Dramatic progress has been made in reducing the prevalence of salmonella in processed chicken in recent years. “The decrease in salmonella numbers has been spectacular over the past six years,” said Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety and quality, Perdue Farms. “The incidence of salmonella in large plants was 4.5%, according to the results published by FSIS in the most recent quarter.” Compare that to prevalence of nearly 15% in 2005 and around 20% in 1995.

Less is known about progress in reducing the prevalence of campylobacter in poultry (FSIS only recently began collecting the numbers), but it is believed that the processing interventions that reduce salmonella have also cut the incidence of campylobacter. FSIS reported campylobacter prevalence in chicken to be 10.66% in the same quarter.

Reinvestment above the level of depreciation  

Capital for investment is needed for the industry to be able to continue achieving reductions in foodborne pathogens in poultry. As Blake Lovette said, “We must be willing to continually reinvest capital in new technology and infrastructure to continue to produce safe food.”

Harris Bank’s Carl Blackham put a number on that level of reinvestment, and it’s more than in some other industries where reinvestment at the level of depreciation is adequate. “In the poultry industry, more investment is needed,” he said. “A good number is between 125% and 150% of depreciation. That’s because there are new food safety technologies coming and opportunities to improve processes and lower costs.”

Seek continual process improvement  

Once the infrastructure and technologies are in place, continual improvement of processes is the key to insuring the food safety of poultry.

“Many of the industry’s processing plants achieve around a 7 log bacterial reduction from the front end to the back end of the processing plant,” Stewart-Brown said. “A 7 log bacterial reduction is equivalent to what would be achieved in cooking, so that’s an impressive reduction in microbiology. It is achieved through attention to detail and things like optimizing evisceration procedures.”

Stewart-Brown said plants are focused on getting those log reductions absolutely all the time, something which requires fanatical attention to detail. “One of the challenges in processing plants is doing every intervention, every day and all the time. That’s no small task,” he said.

Untapped opportunities for pathogen reduction  

Ideally, four or five food safety interventions are needed in a plant to achieve a 7 log reduction, and those interventions typically involve online carcass sprays, online reprocessing treatments, chemical interventions in the chiller, and post-chill sprays and dips. However, some other processing interventions are largely untapped.

“While very few companies place emphasis at the front end of the plant, opportunities exist there,” said Dr. Scott Russell, University of Georgia professor of food science.

“For example, prescald brushes are available to remove organic material from the birds before they enter the scalders. Chemical treatments in the scalders also have been found to be effective in reducing pathogen levels on carcasses,” Russell said. Also available are post-picking sprays, which remain on the carcasses during the evisceration process.

“In my opinion, the scalder is the most overlooked area in the processing plant for reductions in foodborne pathogens,” he concluded.

Evolving live-production interventions  

Food safety processes are increasingly approached in a holistic way, involving both processing and live-production interventions.

“Most companies have developed strong live-production food safety best practices,” Stewart-Brown said. “We are still trying to come up with the right ones and understand how those can be monitored and run dependably.”

There are ebbs and flows in the ecosystems of pathogens, including salmonella, which result in unpredictable changes in serotypes. This complicates the management of live-production interventions.

“Reducing salmonella in live production is not easy at all,” he continued. “The salmonella serotypes change over time, and that necessitates changes in the live-production programs. It is an exercise in continuous improvement at its optimal level.”

Changing serotypes are a challenge  

The fact that salmonella serotypes tend to change unpredictably in live-production environments remains a challenge to achieving consistent reductions there.

“I think the reductions in the numbers of foodborne pathogens in live production are really encouraging,” Stewart-Brown said. “Now, the question about the entire process is how low the levels can be maintained given that the serotypes are always changing.”

Meantime, fewer proven live-productions interventions exist for campylobacter, and there’s not as much scientific research to guide their management as for salmonella.

Focus on pathogens of human significance  

While roundtable members agreed that foodborne pathogens must be attacked everywhere, including in the processing and the live-production environments, one member said that meaningful progress in the future may require focusing on foodborne pathogens of human significance.

“Europe has been working to revise its standards to focus on certain types of salmonella, including Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella typhimurium,” said Todd McAloon, Cargill’s vice president of technical services for global poultry. “I believe this is the right approach and the one the U.S. should take to combat salmonella.”

A focus on pathogens of human significance works well in Europe where the emphasis in pathogen reduction is in live production. (Interventions in the plant reduce all microbes, while live-production interventions tend to be focused on specific organisms.) Such a focus would also fit in the U.S., McAloon suggested, as more emphasis is placed on live-production interventions.

A focus on pathogens of human significance in the U.S. would also better position the U.S. industry's exports to meet similar standards around the world in the future, he said.

Most importantly, marshalling resources around pathogens of human significance would allow companies to focus efforts where they matter the most in food safety.

Expand food safety research  

Future progress in reducing foodborne pathogens in poultry will require expanded scientific research. A host of research needs exist, including getting a better understanding of pathogen ecosystems and campylobacter.

“We have made great improvements in the processing plants to reduce salmonella incidence,” said McAloon. “A better understanding is needed of the sources of foodborne pathogens. Where are the organisms? Why aren’t we able to knock them all out? Are they being protected in some way? Basic and applied research needs to be done so further improvements can be made.

“A lot less is clear about the incidence of pathogenic organisms and their serotypes in the live production environments. One major need is for rapid, cost-effective, easy-to-perform serotyping methods for campylobacter.”

Scott Russell indicated the scalding and picking processes are areas ripe for research about ways to control campylobacter. There’s a need for better ways to chemically attack campylobacter which tends to be protected by the biofilm layer on the skin of poultry carcasses.

Involve the entire supply chain  

The entire production and supply chain, including food safety agencies and consumers should be involved in the food safety process, according to the roundtable members. Following are some of the different roles in the chain:

  • Industry needs to tackle food safety and the reduction of foodborne pathogens at all process levels, while communicating about best practices all along the supply chain. Developing strong partnerships along the supply chain is imperative.
  • Food safety agencies must improve the accuracy and quality of human disease attribution data.
  • Governmental agencies need to expedite the approval of new technologies to reduce foodborne pathogens. Preservation of existing poultry health drugs and the approval of new ones also are essential, because poultry health has a major impact on foodborne pathogens in flocks.
  • Consumers need to be better educated about their role in the food safety of the poultry products they purchase. Industry needs to continue to improve packaging and labeling to reduce the risk of cross contamination and improve awareness of proper handling and preparation.
  • More collaboration in food safety efforts is needed between industry, regulators and academia. Government regulations need to encourage positive approaches and investment.

The industry may be at a juncture where involving consumers in the food safety effort is increasingly cost-effective. Pfizer’s Jon Schaeffer explained, “As the levels of foodborne pathogens in poultry are reduced to very low levels with diminishing returns from efforts to further reduce those pathogens, educating consumers about safe food handling practices may offer the greatest reward for the industry’s food safety effort.”

Communicate about food safety  

The roundtable members emphasized the importance of communication all along the production and supply chain and including consumers.

“The better that the industry tells the story of what it is accomplishing in food safety the more it instills confidence throughout the value chain,” said Brian Coan of Chick-fil-A.

Pfizer’s director of technical services, Dr. Chris Williams, addressed the dual nature of the industry’s food safety message: “Communication with the public about the food safety of poultry is tremendously important. The industry needs to find ways to effectively communicate a good news/bad news message about the food safety of poultry from a scientific basis.”

Bruce Stewart-Brown zeroed in on the industry’s messaging dilemma by saying, “The industry has to figure out how to talk about non-perfect messages. We can’t talk about a sterile piece of chicken on an all-the-time, every-time basis, even though the industry is focused on that goal. We have to find ways to talk about the progress that the industry is making and have that come across the way it is in real life – that the people in the industry are dedicated to this aspect of food safety.”

The human dimension of food safety  

Mike Blair, senior director of nutritional services for Pilgrim’s, talked more about the human dimension of food safety. “When it comes to consumer confidence, I work in the live-production part of the poultry business, but I am a consumer. When I go home from work and go to the grocery store with my wife and kids, it is important to my family that we have produced a safe product for our customers, because I might be buying that product that evening.

“The food safety chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” he continued, “and we are always working to identify those weakest links. It is a process of continual improvement.”

He also issued a final challenge: “Food safety involves physical, chemical and microbial components. We want to keep our eyes on all of those aspects so that we are not caught unprepared in any area.”