Opinion

This weekend I continued to work on the Parker and Jarboe E. coli cases — both linked to the consumption of tainted romaine lettuce that was caused by E. coli O157:H7 contaminated cattle feces in the environment.  I was also considering what our next move — short of litigation — might be on the quest to rid Salmonella from beef and chicken.

In researching both issues, I came across — again — a 2017 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts entitled “Food Safety from Farm to Fork” — certainly a common and well-used phrase. But is made me consider that we need to think of pathogen reduction pre-harvest as not only of a way of making our meat supply safer, but also as a way to reduce pathogens in the environment that can taint other foods we consume — namely leafy greens.

With former food safety head of Pew, Sandra Eskin, now ensconced at FSIS I took a lot harder look at the report that focused on “. . .“ assess[ing] pre-harvest interventions aimed at reducing the level of the major foodborne pathogens—Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7—that can lead to the contamination of meat from poultry, swine, and cattle.”

Although the focus of the report was primarily how to prevent contamination of the meat from poultry, swine, and cattle that we consume, it strikes me also as a possible roadmap to reducing pathogens in the environment and therefore reducing pathogens finding their way on to our salads.

Recommendations
To improve food safety in the U.S. through pre-harvest interventions, Pew makes the following recommendations to:

Funding agencies such as U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture

1. Extend funding opportunities to support:

a. Relevant research, particularly into biosecurity and best management practices, which are foundational to pre-harvest food safety and effective across a wide variety of species, production systems, and pathogens but to date have not been a focus of most scientific research.
b. Large field trials on commercial operations for interventions that may be promising but currently lack efficacy data, particularly for hard-to-address issues such as Campylobacter in poultry and swine or Salmonella in swine.
c. Research on commercial operations to optimize application protocols, such as timing vaccinations to maximize efficacy and cost-effectiveness.

2. Study the basic science, mechanism of action, ancillary benefits, and potential unintended consequences associated with poorly understood yet promising interventions such as pre- and probiotics, including alternative approaches that may reduce the need for antibiotics. Similarly, studies should also evaluate the cost-effectiveness of promising pre-harvest interventions as this will be a critical prerequisite for successful implementation.

3. Designate more funding to evaluate potential synergistic or antagonistic effects among interventions, the underlying drivers of variability in efficacy across farms and operations, and the cost-effectiveness of interventions, including potential incentives to increase uptake of the interventions by producers.

4. Consider incentives to spur research and development in the pre-harvest food safety area, by providing, for instance, more grants and fostering public-private partnerships.

To federal agencies

1. Provide incentives for the implementation of pre-harvest food safety interventions, be they regulatory or economically motivated. In particular, consider strategies that lead to improvements in biosecurity and management practices as part of these incentives.

2. Expand the use of innovative tools such as risk assessments to systematically synthesize pertinent data and prioritize when and where interventions should be applied.

3. Improve the regulatory approval processes in such a way that product safety, consistency, efficacy, and quality can be guaranteed while making sure promising products can reach the market in a timely fashion. In particular, consider the value of technological advancements such as whole genome sequencing for overcoming traditional challenges to regulatory approval.

4. Improve collaboration and communication among all stakeholders — farmers, meat producers, consumers, regulatory agencies, academic researchers, the pharmaceutical industry — to increase the availability and use of promising interventions. In particular, strengthen interagency collaborations to leverage technical expertise across and within organizations and closely align animal health and food safety responsibilities, even if they rest in different entities such as USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

To industry

1. Emphasize the use of individual pre-harvest interventions as one part of a herd health management program, in the context in which they will be used — for example, animal species and age group, production system — along with potential synergisms or antagonisms between interventions. Evaluate whether ancillary benefits may be achieved, such as improvements in overall animal health that may reduce treatment costs and animal losses.

2. Provide adequate biosecurity, feed and water safety, and basic animal health standards as a prerequisite for the production of meat and poultry on farms and feedlots, even if biosecurity may be more challenging to ensure in some production systems — such as pasture-based systems.

3. For industries in which a small number of breeding herds or flocks give rise to the production animals, consider the feasibility and potential value of pathogen eradication programs upstream, in elite herds or flocks, and create incentives for such programs where feasible.

To all stakeholders

1. Encourage data sharing between industry, academia, governmental researchers and regulatory agencies to allow data on the efficacy and safety of these products from all settings to be used to the greatest extent possible. Public-private partnerships may be the most feasible approach to closing some of the data gaps that currently hinder the development and use of pre-harvest interventions. This will require overcoming legal and logistical challenges such as privacy and transparency concerns and information technology infrastructure compatibility.

Seems like the old saying “killing two birds with one stone” might well have a slightly different take. If we thought of pre-harvest reduction of pathogens from an environmental prospective, we might well have a shot of at least reducing pathogens in the meat AND the salads we eat.

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