When it comes to the safety of the U.S. beef supply, everything works out in the wash--the hide wash, that is.
Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) developed a hide-washing tool that has significantly improved the safety of U.S. beef while saving the beef industry millions of dollars each year. An estimated 50 percent of U.S. feedlot-raised beef cattle undergo the washing treatment, which has reduced the national incidence of pathogenic Escherichia coli in ground beef samples by about 43 percent.
The tool was developed by ARS scientists at the Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) in Clay Center, Neb. The research team included microbiologists Terry Arthur and Joseph Bosilevac, food technologists Steven Shackelford and Tommy Wheeler, and center director Mohammad Koohmaraie, formerly with ARS.
The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that E. coli O157:H7 causes nearly 73,000 illnesses every year in the United States. Following a 1993 outbreak, the USMARC scientists launched a massive investigation into the pathogen. Their work was the first to show that the principle source of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef is fecal contamination on cowhides.
"At the time, most intervention efforts were focused on eliminating E. coli O157:H7 from feces,” says former USMARC director Mohammad Koohmaraie. “Our findings led to a paradigm shift that enabled us to develop hide-targeted intervention techniques to reduce and eliminate pathogenic E. coli O157:H7 and other dangerous microorganisms from the ground beef supply.”
“We have had no problems this year at any of the facilities that use the hide-wash system,” says Timothy P. Biela, chief food safety officer of American Fresh Foods and American Foodservice. The two partner corporations produce more than 350 million pounds of ground beef every year for supermarkets, commercial fast-food outlets, and casual dining. They sample the products every 20 minutes to test for E. coli O157:H7 and conduct more than 15,000 additional tests each year for other pathogens.
The hide-washing system works by using a high-pressure-water wash that removes excess organic matter from the cattle's hides, which are then sprayed with an antibacterial compound.
The scientists also have demonstrated that several chemical compounds can be effectively used for pathogen removal.
“It’s incredibly effective,” Biela reports. “It’s almost unbelievable.”