One of the hot topics at the recent Animal Agriculture Alliance meeting in Washington, D.C., was food recalls and meatborne illnesses that have occurred during the past 10 years.

Participating in that discussion, it occurred to me that the 80-20 rule seemed to apply. About 80 percent of the ground beef products used in most restaurant chains were tested on a routine basis for the most important biopathogens; the other 20 percent were not tested.

The vast majority of the foodborne illnesses and recalls reported were from untested lots of meat.  So, in an effort to save a little money, companies that decided not to test put their brand names — and the health of their customers — at risk. This cost some of the restaurants and food companies millions of dollars in direct and indirect costs, not to mention the spillover effect it had on the rest of the meat industry including producers and processors.

It would have cost far less in the long run to have simply gone ahead and tested the products.

Testing options

A number of tests are available. A producer or company can check to see if the animals are in enrolled in an accepted vaccination program. Dairy producers can test their milk for somatic cell counts. Meat processors can check for foodborne pathogens. These tests should be viewed as risk-management tools by dairy and beef producers, as well as those further up the production chain. They are investments in consumer confidence.

Animals and animal products are moving greater geographical distances and through more locations than ever before. This makes the logistics and tracking of animals and products an important part of the system. Along with the location points, some type of testing, monitoring or surveillance needs to be conducted to document the health of the animals or quality of the products derived from the animals. This allows action to be taken in the event of a problem.  

The ability to trace an animal back to its farm of origin allows health officials to deal with problems in a timely manner. In addition, it helps safeguard the national animal health status, and provides quality assurance to consumers.

The important issues related to a testing-monitoring-and-surveillance protocol are cost-effectiveness, the amount of intervention required to carry out the testing or monitoring, and the speed of the results.   But, regardless of the details, the system must retain the confidence of consumers. As without consumers there would be no markets to fill.

A testing-monitoring-surveillance protocol should be an important part of every livestock operation’s risk-management tools.

Make an investment

A simple investment in testing can prevent or minimize an animal disease outbreak, or a product recall. Don’t look at the tests as a cost. Look at them instead as investments. To create an efficient and proactive risk management program for the food supply requires involvement from all segments of the food chain. A penny invested could be millions of dollars saved.  

  Jay Mattison is the executive vice president of ReQuest Ltd., in Verona, Wis., and CEO of the National Dairy Herd Improvement Association.