Dr. Bo Reagan was instrumental in establishing BIFSCO, which is recognized internationally for its role in leading the beef industry in the safety arena and reducing the chance of foodborne pathogens entering the food system. As the produce industry grapples with a host of food safety issues in the aftermath of the spinach E. coli crisis, there is much to learn from the beef industry.
With aggressive food safety agendas, industry executives such as Tim York have pointed to BIFSCO as an ideal model for the produce industry to emulate in formulating new standards. “The beef industry set aside differences for the common good. This is a recent foundational work being done over and above government regulations. It’s beautiful and spot on. We could take this document and swap the word beef for produce and it’s exactly the mission in front of us.”
Bo’s fervor for food safety goes way back. Growing up on a cattle and sheep operation in Lampasas, Texas, he received his BS, MS and Ph.D. in Animal Science/Meat Science at Texas A&M University. Bo served a 16-year tenure at the University of Georgia (UGA), where he attained the rank of Professor of Meat Science in the Department of Animal Sciences. He has authored or co-authored more than 125 scientific publications in the areas of food microbiology and beef and pork quality, and he has won many awards for his work.
In 1991, Bo joined the National Live Stock & Meat Board as a Director of Research in areas of product enhancement and beef safety. He served as staff coordinator for the industry’s Blue Ribbon Task Force, which was charged with developing an industry blueprint for addressing the issues associated with E. coli 0157:H7.
Following the merger, Bo was named Executive Director of Science & Technology for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, where he instigated development of BIFSCO and now chairs. He has served as the Executive Director and Co-Leader for NCBA’s Center for Research and Technical Services, and in December 2002, was named Vice President of the NCBA Research and Knowledge Management Center, where he oversees the national research programs in beef safety, market research, product technology and human nutrition research.
Q: How did BIFSCO come about?
A: It was part of a long building process. In 1992, when I worked for the National Livestock and Meat Board, we were partnering with a number of packers, testing the use of organic acid rinses, citric acid, acidic acid, and lactic acids. If we sprayed the carcass with one of these three acids would it make it more difficult for pathogens to attach? Also, if bacteria was present, would it reduce the amount? We discovered that taking these steps did have an impact. We were seeking a venue to talk about innovative technologies and new protocols to improve food safety.
Not long after this, the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak shook the industry. It sickened hundreds of people and we lost four children. [The outbreak was linked to adulterated hamburger patties manufactured and sold to the fast food chain by one of its suppliers. Litigation stemming from the outbreak took years and tens of millions of dollars to resolve.]
Our board came together with the need to address this issue and do it fast, forming a blue ribbon task force to attack the E. coli problem, appointing me to lead it. We identified 12 industry experts in research science areas that joined the panel. We met every month and examined every sector, pre-harvest, post-harvest, processing, retail, foodservice with those knowledgeable in the E. coli pathogen.
Several things became clear. We didn’t know a heck of a lot about E. coli 0157:H7 and the way it spread. In each of these sectors, we made a list of areas we needed to examine, questions demanding answers. If we were to build an industry research program to address E. coli in the grinding sector, the packing sector and so on, we’d have to construct a blueprint for a targeted investigation and analysis the next three to four years down the road. We started the food safety council and research funding efforts.
Q: How is the program funded?
A: At that time, we presented our research plan to the industry in order to receive available funding through the beef check off program, which was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. It assesses $1 per head of cattle sold in the U.S., in addition to a comparable assessment on imported beef and beef products. State beef councils collect the dollar per head of cattle and retain control of 50 cents of every dollar, and the remainder goes to national programs in promotion, research, education and communication.
In fall of 1993, United States beef producers started investing $2 million specifically to research E. coli. That’s how we started rolling in food safety research and expanding our knowledge base. About 80 percent of all research in the safety arena is done through check off dollars used at the industry level. The majority of interventions have involved beef check off dollars. In my experience as a university professor and researcher, there’s not a program around that can compare to the beef check off program. It is very well accepted by the government.
In 1996, The National Livestock and Meat Board, which worked with the check off dollars, merged with the National Cattleman Association, the policy office and lobbying arm, to form the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Over the years at NCBA, we’ve worked with over 65 institutions, including 20 to 30 universities, not only in safety, but incorporating marketing, nutrition and other areas as well. In time, safety research has broadened. Not every dollar goes to examining E. coli, but normally investments involve the study of pathogens, salmonella applies as well.
Q: What had been happening in terms of food outbreaks? Was there relative calm in the marketplace since the Jack in the Box scare?
A: There was a period of two or three years where E. coli problems went away. Then in the summer of 1997, Hudson Foods got pummeled by a major recall of some 25 million pounds of beef when hamburger product was found to be contaminated with potentially deadly E. coli. All that plant operation did was process ground beef.
In those days at the grinding plant, operators grinding at different points during the day would rework patties that didn’t form right and run them back through the system again.
Regulations today break that chain. So if the plant runs eight lots a day and there’s a problem with lot one, it doesn’t mean the operator has to condemn every lot that day. Hudson Foods carried work one day to the next and got into a huge mess. The beef processing plant shut down. We were digging into that, which kicked off BIFSCO.
At the same time, the Japanese were concerned plants in the Midwest carried dangerous pathogens.
Chuck Schroeder, our CEO, had been Nebraska’s Commissioner of Agriculture. Governor Ben Nelson called Chuck and said NCBA needed to take the lead and pull the industry back together. The two of us went on a plane to meet with Governor Nelson and talk about this issue with representatives from the packing industry. We coined the term BIFSCO, officially launching the organization in 1997 and meeting a couple of times a year.
BIFSCO was rocking along. Then in 2002 all that changed with another E. coli outbreak resulting in Con Agra’s massive recall of 18 million pounds of beef. Controversy ignited when reports questioned the government’s delayed response from the time meat inspectors discovered the contaminated hamburger to when USDA issued the recall. When that happened, we decided we needed to reinvigorate BIFSCO.
Q: And how did you go about it? Shaking up established ways isn’t easy, not to mention getting everyone on board.
A: We were very concerned that our industry was in deep trouble. It really dawned on us that if we were going to be successful in addressing issues, we had to be non-competitive and share information. In January 2003 we held an invitation only summit in San Antonio, Texas, to deal with E. coli.
Q: Invitation only? Sounds secretive and exclusive. Couldn’t that approach fuel skepticism from the outside world?
A: We made the decision to go behind closed doors as a big family without the press or regulatory agencies there, so that people could roll up their sleeves and feel comfortable to be completely open in sharing information to get to the crux of the problem. It was no longer about holding back knowledge or protecting proprietary food safety strategies to gain the competitive edge. People finally realized that no matter which company had the problem, we all had the problem.
Everyone within the industry — producers, cow feed operators, slaughterers, grinders, processors, retailers, foodservice people — all the way from the gate to plate were involved. What came out of that meeting was a pledge to do everything we can to produce the safest product in the world. Everyone signed it and walked out of that meeting with a pledge card and a message to promote. A majority of people still carry that card as a symbol of the acceptance to share all our food safety information.
Q: So where did that pledge take the industry?
A: We developed strict best practices for each sector. On our website you can click on retail, foodservice, pre-harvest, grinders, and others to find a list of food safety guidelines used to promote the safest product possible. If you go to each of those sectors, influential and respected industry players are identified as point people you can reach out to and call if you’re trying to implement a program, or have an issue or problem. For the program to work, you have to develop trust amongst each other, be open and go beyond the doors of your own plant.
We also come together each spring at a food safety summit to share what we’ve learned, and update the guidelines for each of these sectors. Our group assesses our tremendous research program and reevaluates how we should invest dollars. BIFSCO plays a huge role in identifying research and putting money behind those recommendations. Well over $23 million in beef check off dollars has been invested since 1993. In addition, each one of those 34 or 35 major packing plants has invested close to $20 million in state of the art facilities that continue to evolve. Other sectors have made significant investments as well. As we develop interventions, we’re putting them to work.
Q: How prevalent is buyer participation in these efforts?
A: We do have buyers participating at BIFSCO, but not at the same level. Retailers belong to FMI and set up their own guidelines and best practices. From the early stages, retailers and foodservice operators have not been as active in BIFSCO as in other organizations. We are really reaching out to these folks. A big effort by BIFSCO is now underway. The only way to reach food safety goals is to have every sector of the chain involved. Safety of product is no better than your weakest link. It doesn’t matter how good a job the producer, job feeder, grinder or packer does, if something happens to impede the safety of the product once it passes to the next sector.
Q: Are industry and government standards compatible?
A: The government standards are based on our research. We have more data than the government has. What we’ve done is critical to success. We work with the government very closely. Whenever we do research, we discuss with government officials possible interventions. We say, “This is what we want to look at and target. Do you see any holes?” We want to share data and receive input. The government realizes quality work and understands the industry is behind these efforts. If people are pulling in different directions, you can’t get anything accomplished. You have to build those relationships.
Q: Many of the issues you describe parallel what the produce industry is going through now.
A: When the leafy greens industry had a meeting in California, we shared our information. The produce industry in a lot of respects is where we were in 1993. We didn’t have the investments needed in research, or the necessary interventions in place. We’ve offered to share all our knowledge with the produce industry. And we are looking at setting up a meeting to give tours of processing plants and recommended sampling programs.
Q: There is much discussion in our industry about the costs and benefits of sampling finished product before it is shipped.
A: Sampling product is where a lot of people get hung up. You have to have check points, but move up to where product flows at critical entry points. You have to find out where pathogens are coming into the system. We’re also huge believers that there is no silver bullet. A lot of people have tried irradiation. It’s a tool and part of the process to control pathogen issues, but you need it as part of the solution.
Q: Industry executives are now discussing the concept of banning cow manure in certain growing processes all together to dramatically inhibit the chance of E. coli from entering into the production areas in the first place. Another argument is that cattle ranchers need to take a bigger burden of responsibility in containing livestock and looking to minimize antibiotics that may create pathogenic immunities.
A: E.coli is a common pathogen in all ruminant animals, cattle, goats, deer. Look at chicken and salmonella. I tell people the reasons chickens don’t have E. coli is because the salmonella kills it. Ninety-eight percent of pork contains another pathogen.
In reality, most creatures have some type of organisms associated with these types of pathogens. There has to be shared responsibility. If you’re a cattle producer, you need to have those animals confined so they are not roaming spinach fields. If you’re a spinach producer, you need food safety guidelines. The fences were fine for cattle it was the wild boors that surfaced as the problem in the spinach outbreak. I’ve heard arguments from some growers that issues with endangered species prevented them from putting up fences.
As far as the cow manure is concerned, it is the responsibility of the owners of those fields. If they are going to use animal manure, they need to implement processes of composting to make that product sterile. There are no issues with it then. That needs to be in the guidelines. The produce industry is funding research on composting.
Q: As you look back on how far the beef industry has come in food safety, what would you consider the largest roadblocks to progress?
A: Is BIFSCO perfect, no we still have issues. The big challenge is pulling the industry together and creating consensus for change. You can’t have finger-pointing. Everyone has a role to play and until people realize that, you can’t have food safety success.
Recruit people that may initially have doubts by demonstrating common interests. Costco came to us and shared their best practices they use in their operations, and that was the basis of our best practices for ground beef. Some wanted to sell best practices. We didn’t think this was a good idea. The goal is to make food safety accessible.
We looked at industry decisions upfront, knowing we had to target the squeeze points in the industry. There are 750,000 cattle producers, 50,000 feed lots, 30,000 packing plants harvesting. Then you have the retailers and foodservice operations. It’s a no brainer. With limited dollars, you put into affect the food safety measures at the critical control points where you move the greatest number of products. You focus on the 35 major plants that harvest at least 89 percent of all cattle.
In the produce industry, you go back to the processor and look at the percentage of product run through 15 processing operations. You put in interventions. If all you’re doing is washing with chlorine, you need to upgrade food safety measures so they are more fail proof. Look for the areas of biggest impact then move back toward the grower. You’re in a time crunch where you need to focus on the squeeze points where you affect the greatest amount of product.
Q: In conclusion, what words could you leave us with to help the industry move forward?
A: Take the beef industry’s knowledge of E. coli and the lessons we’ve learned and look where you could apply them in produce. Doing so won’t answer all your problems but would give you a leg up. We are glad to have people call us. We want to help reduce instances of foodborne pathogens. We are all in this together.
We know we speak for the produce industry when we say THANK YOU to Bo for giving up his valuable time to speak with us and for his generous offer to share BIFSCO’s research knowledge and other lessons learned. It is an example of comity in the service of safety that we all need to keep in mind.
Particularly interesting is Bo’s suggestion to the produce trade to focus on the processing plants. After the initial focus on growing practices more and more voices in the produce industry — as we noted both here and here — are coming to the same conclusion.
In some ways, particularly the lack of science regarding E. coli 0157:H7, the beef industry when it started BIFSCO was in a similar situation to the produce industry today.
Yet the differences shine through as well. One is money. We have no mandatory assessment in the produce industry. No equivalent of the $1 per head of cattle that can be used to fund the effort.
The reason we don’t have it speaks to another difference: All cattle producers have a lot in common. Produce growers, raising wildly different crops in wildly different places, much less so.
The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative is important in no small part because it is the buyers that create the produce industry. If, tomorrow, every buyer decided to split fruits and vegetables with separate VPs and buying and merchandising staffs, the industry would instantly bifurcate.
The buyers see everyone in the business as their produce supply chain, but it surely is not missed on citrus growers that all these food safety problems have been on spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, green onions and melons. They may feel that these crops should pay for their own food safety needs.
Even with differences noted, there is a lot to learn from this initiative, and the produce trade will be studying it closely. Thanks again to Bo Reagan, the staff of BIFSCO and the entire beef industry for sharing its expertise and experience so generously.