Ty Lawrence: Changing consumer perceptions
Dr. Ty Lawrence gave the keynote address at the 73rd Annual Sandhills Cattle Association Convention in Thedford, NE on May 23. The West Texas A&M University meat scientist and professor updated convention attendees on how the beef industry is tackling consumers’ food safety concerns.
Among food safety issues, E. coli is the biggest concern. According to Lawrence, nearly 32,000 people become infected with E. coli bacteria each year, typically from eating undercooked beef. Of those, he estimated 30 succumb to the illness usually due to kidney failure.
The E. coli strain most prevalent is Eschericia coli 0157:H7, which is found mainly in the intestines of livestock – particularly in cattle. This strain produces a toxin in humans that damages the intestinal lining causing severe bloody diarrhea (HUS), abdominal pain and vomiting. The illness, which usually lasts about a week, is most severe in children under five and elderly over the age of 65.
Although 0157:H7 is the most commonly identified serotype of E. coli, more than 200 other serotypes have been associated with human illness, Lawrence continued. Beginning June 4, 2012, beef processors will be required by law to test for six additional serotypes before beef can be sold to the public. These new serogroups are: 026, 045, 0103, 0111, 0121, and 0145. Lawrence said it would be a felony for any processor to knowingly sell beef to the public that has tested positive for one of these serogroups.
“We are doing this to protect the beef consumer,” Lawrence said. “We have also implemented other steps to make beef safer.”
Lawrence reiterated to producers the importance of being able to use antibiotics in cattle production.
“As beef producers, if we have a sick animal, we are morally obligated to treat that animal,” he said. Antibiotics help fight bacterial infections, and have been approved for use by the FDA after rigorous testing. The FDA also has strict withdrawal times to prevent antibiotic residues in beef.
“Beef producers have been trained about safe and appropriate use through Beef Quality Assurance programs since the 1980s,” he said. “For example, we all know to give shots in the neck. It is common practice now.”
Lawrence is baffled by consumers that are worried about antibiotics in their beef when “multiple studies have failed to link antibiotic use in cattle production to antibiotic resistance,” he said.
Also under attack is the use of ionophores in cattle production. Ionophores are antimicrobial compounds fed to cattle to improve feed efficiency by altering the rumen bacterial population. They increase carbon and nitrogen retention, while decreasing methane production which leads to improved feed efficiency, Lawrence explained.
“They act with a high degree of specificity upon rumen bacteria, but they do not contribute to antibiotic resistance in human drugs,” he stated.
Lawrence also discussed the consumer’s perception of growth promotant use in cattle production.
“Growth promotants help cattle to convert feed resources into muscle tissue more efficiently by increasing protein synthesis and decreasing protein degradation,” he explained. “All growth promotants in beef production are approved for use by the FDA after rigorous testing.”
Lawrence said many consumers are convinced it is possible to purchase foods that are labeled “hormone-free.” In truth, Lawrence continued, “those hormone-free foods do not exist. All plants and animals use hormones for cellular growth.”
Dr. Ty Lawrence explains the “hurdle approach” to food safety, which involves multiple steps to prevent the growth of microorganisms in beef:
1. Feeding probiotics to competitively inhibit growth of E. coli.
2. Bacteriophage applied to the hide to kill E. coli.
3. Washing cattle at harvest to minimize entry of E. coli into the facility.
4. Steam vacuum hide pattern to kill E. coli prior to opening the hide.
5. Pre-evisceration washes with organic acid to kill E. coli.
6. Shank scalders to kill E. coli on high contamination areas.
7. High pressure washing of carcass to shed E. coli.
8. Organic acid sprayed on carcass to kill E. coli.
9. Steam pasteurizing carcass to kill E. coli.
10. Organic acid sprayed on primal cuts to kill E. coli.
11. Cook meat to 158 degrees F. for one second to kill E. coli.
By following these steps, Lawrence said the beef industry is offering as safe of a product as they can to consumers. “We are doing everything we can to protect consumers from E. coli,” he explained. “However, the best thing the consumer can do to protect themselves is to make sure meat is cooked properly to 158 degrees F. It only takes one second at that temperature to kill the bacteria,” he said.