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Health, Science, Environment

Cracks in the system: Salmonella proves to be a problem in beef, too

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2013 - Salmonella tainted ground beef could be the biggest challenge facing the industry, said a leading beef researcher.

Scientists have realized they may have misidentified the source of Salmonella in beef cattle. They now realize it may be in the lymphatic system of cattle, making it harder to prevent than E. coli.

Cracks in the system

An investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting shows the new egg safety inspection system is still rife with slow responses, low standards and a lack of communication and coordination among federal oversight agencies.

Among the findings:

* The Food and Safety Inspection Service had not inspected the “laying barns” at egg operations nor had officials reached out to the FDA to coordinate inspections. Officials believed that the FSIS did not have authority to do so, according to a 2012 federal audit.

* Between July 2010 and September 2011, more than 80 percent of nearly 400 samples voluntarily submitted for Salmonella testing to one government agency proved to be positive but the results were never made public.

* Ten egg companies with a federal egg grader on site had multiple samples that tested positive for Salmonella E., a bacterium that kills 400 people a year and sickens an estimated 1.2 million people. Due to a lack of mandatory reporting laws, the agency did not notify any other federal agency of the results.

* Testing and reporting for Salmonella remain voluntary. Producers can send samples to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for testing, but it is not required to disclose test results publicly -- even if a test is positive. Officials worry that if they were required to do so, producers would no longer use their testing services.

As recently as March, Salmonella Typhimurium in ground beef was linked to more than 20 human illnesses in six states. In September 2012 nearly 50 people in nine states became ill from eating ground beef tainted with Salmonella enteritidis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“It was always our working assumption that E. coli interventions should be controlling Salmonella,” said James Marsden, professor of animal science at Kansas State University. “E. coli is transferred from the beef hide to the carcass and works its way through the system. We thought this is what Salmonella did as well.”

Marsden, who thinks this is the biggest challenge facing the beef industry, has been writing about the topic for the industry blog “meatingplace.

“Incidences of E. coli have dropped sharply over the past 10 years, but Salmonella isn’t dropping, which is perplexing,” Marsden said. “And some strains of Salmonella that have been observed in beef are drug resistant strains, so they pose a public health problem.”

Researchers at Texas Tech University now believe that unlike E. coli, Salmonella is in the lymphatic system of cattle.

“In 2010 the industry was in a position to start asking questions,” said Guy Loneragan, professor of animal science and lead researcher at Texas Tech University. “We started looking at the lymph nodes, which are internal and exempt from current prevention techniques.”

USDA standards for Salmonella in ground beef

The rate of Salmonella positive tests for ground beef increased each year from 2009 to 2011, according to a 2011 report from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the food safety branch of U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The agency has been testing for Salmonella in meat since 1996.

The scope and rate of sampling ground meat is different than those used for intact products, such as whole chickens and turkeys. Any processing plant that produces at least 1,000 pounds of ground beef a day is subject to Salmonella testing.

Processing plants are then prioritized for sampling based on the number of days since their last testing, results of that testing and the product. The groups are then prioritized based on the number of human health pathogens identified in the sample from prior testing. The Centers for Disease Control determines the top 20 human pathogens.

As of May, processors were required to submit 325 grams of ground meat for testing. This is the same amount required for E. coli testing. The amount had previously been lower.

Marsden, from Kansas State, said that the USDA recalls beef with any level of E. coli because it considers it an adulterant. When it finds Salmonella, it doesn’t issue a recall because it is not classified as an adulterant.

“If USDA decides it is an adulterant, that changes everything,” he said. “That would put this on the front burner and will cause problems for the industry.”

A Salmonella-related recall will be issued if there are instances of human illness. If meat tests positive for E. coli, a recall will be issued even without evidence of human illnesses.

Marsden said the USDA has been asked by citizens to declare Salmonella as an adulterant, but the agency has yet to do so.

New paradigm in Salmonella-beef research

An exploratory study in 2010 found that during certain times of the year, there is more salmonella in the lymph nodes. The summer and fall and certain southern regions had higher rates of Salmonella in the lymph nodes. Loneragan, from Texas Tech, believes this could be the avenue by which ground beef is contaminated with Salmonella.

Did you know?

If an egg facility has a Salmonella positive test, eggs are not automatically recalled. They then do tests on the eggs. If the eggs are positive, they issue a recall; if not then no recall.

If ground beef tests positive for E. coli, it is recalled whether or not there are any illnesses. If ground beef tests positive for Salmonella, it is not automatically recalled. It is only recalled if there is a human illness.

“This is important because lymph nodes are infinitely linked to beef, to ground chuck, which is muscle, fat, lymph nodes and veins,” said Loneragan.

Loneragan’s team is looking at what can be done before slaughter to reduce Salmonella. He said what can be done in a beef packing plant is limited.

“There are many lymph nodes, and it is not practical or achievable to remove them,” said Loneragan. “We have down-stream measures and we have up-stream measures. Down-stream measures would include irradiation or pasteurization. We are focusing up-stream, on the live animal.”

Marsden agreed.

“It is impossible to remove all the lymph nodes; it isn’t an option,” he said.

Salmonella vaccinations and a diet that includes probiotics or direct-fed microbials are being used to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella in cattle.

Loneragan said that while research is preliminary, the findings are encouraging and warrant further consideration.

Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture animal probiotics are also looking into this. One company recently funded a study at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The study was conducted by Amanda Conder, graduate student, and supervised by Rebecca Atkinson, a professor in animal science.

Conder was not allowed to say which company funded the research due to a confidentiality agreement.

Conder’s study looked at levels of probiotics fed to cattle in a feedlot and the impact on the weight gain of the animal and levels of E. coli, Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens, another pathogen. Specifically, she was trying to determine the cost effectiveness of using a probiotic for pathogen reduction.

She determined that “there are benefits to feeding cattle for 30 days prior to slaughter with direct fed microbial (probiotic) supplementation at the low and medium dose level.”

Flies could play a major role in the transmission of Salmonella in beef cattle. Salmonella may live in flies and other insects associated with cattle, swine and poultry operations, said Loneragan.

There are more flies in warmer times of years and locations. This could explain a higher rate of Salmonella in the summer and fall and in southern locations. This will continue to be researched.

“Right now we have a textbook understanding of this, but that is overly simplistic and it is not sufficient to explain the observed ecology,” said Loneragan. “We need to provide a better understanding of Salmonella in livestock populations and this will help us develop more effective controls.”

Beef cattle producers would need to assume responsibility for Salmonella prevention, if Loneragan’s research pans out.

“Producers have to understand that it is already in the animal when it arrives at the feed lot,” said Loneragan. “This cannot be addressed in the slaughter facility; it has to be up-stream. The owners may be shipping cattle that have Salmonella in them.”

Atkinson, the animal science professor at Southern Illinois University, said producers also could alter their current transportation methods to reduce stress in cattle. Stress can trigger lymph system activity.

The costs to a producer for vaccines have not yet been determined.

Probiotic costs could be about $2 an animal for the time it is in a feed lot.

Options for reducing Salmonella

Reduction, not elimination is the goal, said Marsden. He believes it would be very difficult to get to zero cases of Salmonella or E. coli.

Due to the drug resistant nature of Salmonella in ground beef, there a few post-slaughter prevention options.

Marsden said: “You would need some form of pasteurization to eliminate it, or irradiation, but I am not a big advocate for it. Consumers are against it. Irradiation has been a dead issue for a few years, but there was discussion about doing it again, in a more acceptable manner; it is a possible solution.”

Another possible solution would be to treat the ground beef with ammonium hydroxide.

This practice of treating ground beef received prominent national media attention, mostly negative, in 2012.

Ammonium hydroxide is used by Beef Products Inc., a South Dakota ground beef processor, in making lean finely textured beef, sometimes referred to as “pink slime.”

“I have done research with BPI for 10 years and while their main concern was E. coli, we did look at Salmonella as well,” said James Dickson, professor of microbiology and animal science at Iowa State University. “Ammonium hydroxide does control E. coli and Salmonella in ground beef. It doesn’t eliminate it, but it does substantially reduce it.”

Ground beef trimmings were treated with Salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens during Dickson research. The ammonium hydroxide treated beef displayed lower levels of pathogens. Further, when the treated beef was mixed with untreated beef, the new mix also displayed lower levels of pathogens.

Dickson’s research was funded by Beef Products Inc., but he says that didn’t influence the findings.

“Some people have said I have a conflict of interest when reporting what I found, since BPI paid for my research,” said Dickson. “I didn’t feel any pressure to say or find anything. In fact BPI was adamant that I publish the findings no matter what I found. That is unusual in this industry. Most companies want you to sign a confidentiality agreement agreeing not to publish anything.”

Ongoing research and education

“If meat is prepared properly, Salmonella is neutralized,” said Marsden. “It can be in steaks and roast, not just in ground beef. But if it is all cooked right, it can be managed.

“We need to continue the pre-harvest research to reduce this in cattle. USDA is looking at this from a public health point of view. If we start to see outbreaks associated with drug resistant Salmonella, USDA will act," Marsden added. “People do eat beef less than well done. They have done a good job educating the public about Salmonella in chicken and pork, but not in beef.”

Loneragan’s lymph node research was initially funded as part of a Salmonella working group by the National Cattleman’s Association beef check-off program.

The check-off program is a producer-funded marketing and research program.

He later received a grant from the USDA Agricultural Research Service with additional check-off funding for the 2010 study.

The most recent study was funded by a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant, more beef check-off money and private industry support.  

Research of Salmonella in beef is much more recent than E. coli. E. coli was declared an adulterant by USDA in 1993, giving the industry time to study and understand the E. coli transmission and to work on solutions.

“You have to think about where we are at the moment with E. coli and it is 20 years after a major outbreak,” said Loneragan. “We are two and a half years in to this and we have already come a long way, but it has been a short time, we have more to learn.

“We have only just begun to look at the ecology of Salmonella. We need to thing about a three year process to explore this.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to coverage of agribusiness and related topics such as government programs, environment and energy. Learn more at www.investigatemidwest.org.

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