How many American business sectors have continuous inspection from federal inspectors during every minute of operation? Just one:  U.S. meat and poultry plants that handle live animals. This comes as a surprise to many, but continuous federal inspection and ever-expanding science and technology have created increasingly safe meat and poultry.

Every meat and poultry plant has a food safety program tailored to the products they produce. Meat and poultry companies have documented substantial food safety in recent years. How are we doing it?

1. Food safety interventions

An intervention is like a hurdle erected to block a problem like bacteria and contaminants. Hurdles aren’t perfect, so meat companies use a series of them and each makes it less likely a problem will cross the finish line where it could pose a risk. Common interventions include: scrupulous employee hygiene like frequent hand washing and boot scrubbers; heated knife dips to sanitize knives throughout the day; and the use of superheated steam called “thermal pasteurization” to kill bacteria on hides and carcasses.

2. Technology

Meat and poultry companies deploy new technologies to make meat and poultry safer. Mechanical hide pullers automatically pull hides away from a carcasses to prevent external contamination from meat. Metal detectors scan meat and poultry to ensure that no metal has accidentally made its way into a meat product; organic washes are sprayed on carcasses and contain vinegar or citric acid (like the acid in lemons) to kill harmful bacteria.

3. Inspection

USDA reviews and approves all interventions used in meat and poultry plants. Inspection itself is another important food safety tool — USDA inspectors are in meat plants every day, ensuring proper food safety steps are being followed, checking livestock and poultry to ensure that they are healthy and fit for consumption, verifying industry implemented food safety and plant sanitation programs and testing for common bacteria that can cause illness.  

4. Research and education

In 2001, the meat industry declared food safety a non-competitive issue, freeing companies to share their best practices to benefit the industry as whole. During this period, the Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education (formerly the American Meat Institute Foundation) funded millions of dollars in research to reduce and eliminate bacteria. The industry hosts educational workshops year-round to stay on top of new scientific strategies, including sessions at the premier industry event, the International Production and Processing Expo in Atlanta (Jan 31-Feb 2, 2017) as well as smaller conferences focused on Listeria monocytogenes prevention and control in ready-to-eat meat and poultry and pathogen control in fresh beef.

5. Building on success

USDA data shows that government and industry efforts are working. Harmful bacterial such as Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat meat and poultry products has declined more than 80 percent since 2000 and no ready-to-eat meat and poultry products have caused an illness-triggered recall in more than a decade. Ground beef samples testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 have declined more than 90 percent. Similarly, positive Salmonella test results have dropped substantially in a many product classes.

The industry is continually striving for improvement. As food safety science continues to evolve, companies will evolve as well as they supply the safest meat and poultry possible to families across the country — including their own.