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Auburn researchers find food safety gaps at ‘local’ farms

Auburn researchers find food safety gaps at ‘local’ farms

The local food trend continues to spread, with U.S. consumers increasingly wanting to know exactly where their food comes from, but new data from Auburn University shows food safety issues at “small” and “very small” farms.

“Small and very small facilities do not have as many resources, and, while there are definitely fairly inexpensive ways to assure a safe and wholesome product, many of the facilities have untrained employees who could use some extra training in processing practices and a clear understanding that their every activity in the processing facility has a potential to impact the safety of the product for the end consumer,” said Christy Bratcher, lead researcher, College of Agriculture professor and director of the Food Systems Institute said.

With the support of a four million dollar grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Bratcher and other researchers are addressing the gaps between knowledge and practice in the production and distribution of local and regional foods. Their ultimate goal is to help ensure a more secure food chain.

Bratcher’s research started with going to farms where cattle are raised for direct sales and commercial harvests.

“We looked at E. coli prevalence in addition to feeding, bedding and working chutes, along with environmental swabbing,” she said.

Bratcher said her team collected fecal and water samples from streams and ponds the animals had access to. Higher levels of E. coli were found in waters that cattle had access to. The E. coli investigated for this research project do not typically harm cattle. However, species of E. coli that are dangerous to humans can co-habitate with the other varieties in cattle and the presence of the latter can be an indicator of the former.

Sanitary facilities were the top challenge that Bratcher encountered among local producers. With the help of her colleague Manpreet Singh of the University of Georgia, the team reviewed federally inspected small regional facilities, state-inspected very small regional facilities and very small local facilities.

“While all had E. coli positive samples prior to processing, the concern is the overall reduction in the pathogen by the time all of the harvesting steps have been done and the carcass reaches the final chilling step. For the small and very small regional facilities, there was no detectable E. coli at the end of the harvest process, while in the very small local facilities, there were still some positive carcasses,” according to the researchers.

Large production facilities are designed for, and have the monetary capital for investment of, intervention strategies like steam pasteurization cabinets to ensure that pathogens like E. Coli aren’t transferred from feces and intestinal contents to the meat.

“Small and very small facilities do not have as many resources, and, while there are definitely fairly inexpensive ways to assure a safe and wholesome product, many of the facilities have untrained employees who could use some extra training in processing practices and a clear understanding that their every activity in the processing facility has a potential to impact the safety of the product for the end consumer,” Bratcher said.

To assist local processors in reducing the amount of E. coli transferred to beef in a harvest facility, Bratcher’s team put together a series of Alabama Cooperative Extension System talks regarding sanitary design for producers and packaging plants; “We gave them suggestions on steps they should take when harvesting an animal to make sure everything is sanitary,” she said.

Bratcher also has partnered with the Auburn University Lambert-Powell Meat Laboratory staff and Regional Extension Agent Alex Tigue to develop a butchery school to train producers on proper sanitary design in facilities, They are also working on educational materials for processing meat. The school will hopefully be implemented by 2019.

Research for the project originally began in 2012 to find the presence of E. coli in beef cattle. While conducting the research, the presence of poultry animals in close proximity to cattle prompted Bratcher and her team to expand their research to Salmonella as well.

Salmonella was found on cattle farms where chickens and turkeys were present. According to Bratcher, “We found some linkages between the amount of Salmonella that was on those farms and the amount of Salmonella that was in the water, and we also picked up positive samples where cattle were located.”

Bratcher partnered with fellow Auburn researchers Stuart Price in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Ken Macklin in the Department of Poultry Science through the Food Systems Institute’s Salmonella Working Group to determine how Salmonella was spreading across animals in close proximity.

She has also teamed up with USDA Agricultural Research Service researchers Jeff Carroll, Rand Broadway and Nicole Burdick Sanchez to determine routes of transmission of Salmonella in cattle from the gastrointestinal tract into the meat through atypical carcass reservoirs such as the lymph nodes and synovial fluid in the joints.

Bratcher said they found that cattle infected with Salmonella sometimes do not appear sick enough for anyone to realize that they shouldn’t be harvested for food; “So we want to find out if there’s anything we can do to reduce the amount of Salmonella in those animals.”

She hopes her research efforts will lead to a safer food supply in which consumers can be guaranteed they’re eating a healthy product, regardless of whether they purchase meat from a local grocery store, farmer’s market, or chain store.

“We may never be able to completely solve the problem of pathogen translocation from the environment or animals into meat,” Bratcher said, “but we can develop ways to reduce it.”

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