Food Safety in the Raw Ground Beef & Meat Processing Industry

Raw ground beef on a plate

Within the raw ground meat processing industry, food safety is of paramount concern. Contaminated poultry and meat products account for about 2 million bouts of illness in America every year, representing more than 40 percent of all foodborne diseases. The yearly cost of those diseases is about $1.4 billion for beef, $1.9 billion for pork and $2.5 billion for poultry.


Quick Links: Common Raw Meat Processing Concerns | Best Practices for Producers of Meat ProductsBest Practices for Meat Processing Facilities

Regulations and Safe Practices for Meat Processing | The Risks and Repercussions of Outbreaks in Meat | Defending Against Outbreaks

If a foodborne bacterial illness outbreak occurs in your production or ground beef processing facility, your organization will suffer financially and lose the trust of consumers. Understanding the risks of meat processing and aligning your processes with best practices significantly reduces the chances that an outbreak will disrupt your business.

Common Raw Meat Processing Concerns

Cooking meat patties in a skillet

Of the many pathogens meat processors have to worry about, three stand out as more common and more dangerous. The following pathogens have been responsible for some of the most serious and damaging outbreaks within the industry:

  • Salmonella: This bacteria is responsible for 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths a year. The majority of illnesses are due to contaminated food products. When someone is infected with Salmonella, it takes at least 12 hours for the symptoms to set in, often causing a delay in reporting the outbreak.
  • Listeria: Listeria monocytogenes gets only 1600 people sick per year, but 260 of those people die. This bacterium is most dangerous for pregnant women, newborns, seniors and people with weakened immune systems.
  • E. Coli: Escherichia coli consists of a very diverse group of bacteria. Most of the strains are harmless, but the dangerous ones can cause severe symptoms starting three or four days after consuming the contaminated product.

These pathogens are a concern in every stage of production and processing, but facilities that handle ground meat are at greater risk than the general industry. If bacteria is present on the surface of a cut of meat, the process of grinding spreads the pathogens throughout the mixed, finished product.

Once ground meat is contaminated, there is no way to remove the contaminants. While cooking ground meat to an internal temperature of 160°F destroys bacteria like E. coli, you can’t count on consumers to follow guidelines every time. Some people like their burgers cooked at a medium temperature, and the only way to keep them safe is to follow best practices on both the production and processing side of the industry.

Another one of the unique issues with ground meat food safety is that consumers often freeze these products for later use. Two different people could prepare and eat ground meat from the same lot weeks or even months apart, which can make tracing the source of an outbreak difficult. The longer it takes to identify an outbreak that started in your facility, the more drastic action your company will have to take to address the issue.

Best Practices for Producers of Meat Products

Raw meat on a cutting board

Naturally, food safety in meat starts with the farmers who raise the animals. One source of best practices for these farmers is the Kansas Food*A*Syst risk management guide. Its suggestions fall into the following categories:

  • Water quality: Water used for processing should come from a well or public supply that meets construction standards and is routinely tested for safety. Continuously disinfect any surface water and properly plug any unused wells.
  • Wastewater treatment: Discharge all wastewater to a properly functioning system, and investigate any smells or sogginess to the ground immediately. Wherever possible, use low flow fixtures to save water.
  • Solid and hazardous waste: You can safely compost organic wastes. Store solid wastes securely in vermin-proof containers with lids in place, and take them to a landfill at least once weekly.
  • Packaging and marketing: Any packaging you use should be new. Clean any food packaging or contact surfaces before each use. Only transport the meat in vehicles used specifically for carrying food products — and at temperatures of 40°F or lower.
  • Meat production: Protect all sources of water and feedstock from contamination in every way possible, and inspect them regularly. Keep meticulous records regarding animal health, including vaccines and other health products used.

The importance of raw meat hygiene should be treated as a core value by every employee who comes into contact with the animals. Whether you’re producing beef, chicken or pork, the animals need a clean environment to minimize the risks of any pathogen spreading. Regularly inspect animal containment areas to ensure proper sanitization processes.

Training all farm workers in safe animal handling is essential, as injuries to workers can result in the introduction of bacteria to the animals’ living environment. Since bacteria like E. coli usually live in an animal’s digestive tract, prevention through safe handling and cleanliness is the only way for producers to prevent outbreaks.

Best Practices for Meat Processing Facilities

In the raw ground beef processing industry, one of the potential contamination points is the actual harvesting of the animals. Between slaughter and complete processing, the best approach is multiple-hurdle antimicrobial intervention. This multi-step process helps to ensure that any pathogens present in or on the carcass do not make it through to the final product. The basic process includes these steps:

  • Hide removal
  • Steam vacuuming
  • Pre-evisceration carcass spray
  • Thermal treatment
  • Antimicrobial rinse

In this stage of processing, cold chain management, sanitation, employee hygiene and organic acid treatments help eliminate pathogens before the meats are further processed. Performing N60 verification testing on beef trim confirms that E. coli-preventing interventions are working as intended. When it comes to grinding, processors can employ the following best practices for safer products.

1. Start at the Raw Material Source

All grinders should ensure their suppliers follow a hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plan that meets regulatory requirements. For beef, grinders should obtain and validate specific data on E. coli to verify that there is little to no hazard involved. Grinders must have a written protocol for collecting samples to test for E. coli and other pathogens. These protocols should allow you to track supplier trends over time.

Any lab services used to evaluate raw materials for ground meat should be accredited by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC) or the Food and Drug Administration Bacteriological Analytical Manual (FDA BAM).

2. Evaluate the Suppliers

Each supplier of raw materials should be vetted and approved before a processor grinds the meat. If you are working with a supplier for the first time, it is recommended to start with an intensified sampling program to see if the supplier can meet your safety specifications consistently. Supplier plants should be regularly audited to ensure ongoing compliance. Processors must consistently inspect incoming materials for quality.

Ongoing evaluation requires the processor to collect and track data on the supplier to identify trends and assist with purchase decisions. The information should include:

  • Microbial profiles
  • Contamination by foreign objects
  • Defects
  • Results of plant audits
  • Age of raw material upon receipt
  • Temperature of raw material upon receipt
  • On-time delivery consistency

Tracking multiple metrics in your suppliers adds another safeguard to food safety in ground meat.

3. Implement a Pre-Receipt Verification Process

Processors should implement a system of checks and balances that allow them to confirm the suppliers are holding up their end of the program. Before receiving the meat, processors should obtain a negative lab test result for E. coli before even opening the trailer. This documentation should include:

  • Written notification of results
  • Bill of lading
  • Seal number on load
  • Any available identification or tracking information

It’s critical to ensure measures are in place to protect the integrity of the trailer seal. Ideally, a supplier will seal the truck and only send it to one delivery stop. If the truck will make multiple stops, the supplier must have a re-sealing procedure.

4. Streamline the Receipt of Raw Materials

The last quality hurdle meat must pass before being ground is the receiving process. Designated employees have to verify that each batch of raw material is from an approved supplier, and document the receipt in a log. They must check the cleanliness, temperature and general condition of the trailer before moving on to check the quality of the meat. If all is well, materials must receive tracking information specific to your facility.

Regulations and Safe Practices for Meat Processing

A raw meat patty on a cutting board

Meat processing regulations fall under the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The Act was signed into law in 2011 and is meant to increase the safety of all food facilities. Processors must meet the following three key requirements.

1. Adequate Training

Management is now required to verify that any employees who come in contact with food are actually qualified to perform their duties. They need a combination of training, education or experience that demonstrates they can handle, process and package food in a clean and safe manner. Processors must train employees on food hygiene and safety. While this provision used to be nonbinding, the FSMA now makes it mandatory.

2. Food Safety Plan

Food processors must be able to analyze hazards of a biological, physical and chemical nature. If a hazard is revealed during analysis, your facility must be able to create and implement preventive controls that address the hazard. Process, food allergen and sanitation controls must be put in place to ensure the optimal safety of ground meat products.

3. Food Safety Oversight

Preventive systems only function correctly if a designated individual or team provides oversight to make sure controls are properly implemented. Meat processing facilities should have a system in place to monitor the consistency of preventive controls. In a heat process meant to kill pathogens, for example, documentation should include recording temperature values.

When necessary, there should be policies in place for corrective actions as well as verification that the corrections have been implemented successfully.

The Risks and Repercussions of Outbreaks in Meat

Failure to follow best practices and implement proper HACCP plans can result in the worst kind of disaster for a facility that processes meat products. When an outbreak occurs, processors may have to recall immense amounts of product and incur serious financial losses. Three of the worst meat-related outbreaks of 2018 were:

  • Cargill Meat Solutions: In September 2018, Cargill was forced to recall 132,606 pounds of ground beef. The meat, produced in a facility in Fort Morgan, Colorado, was contaminated with E. coli O26. One individual died and 17 people got sick from the meat. Even though the illnesses only occurred in Florida, the recalled beef had also been shipped to other states.
  • Enterprise Foods: In South Africa, some processed meat products by Enterprise foods led to the world’s longest and deadliest outbreak of listeriosis. The country saw 982 confirmed cases of the disease between January 2017 and March 2018, with 189 people dying. Because listeriosis has an initial incubation of nearly 70 days, the outbreak was exceptionally difficult to track.
  • JBS Tolleson: This Arizona-based meat processor had to recall an astonishing 12.1 million pounds of beef products due to a Salmonella outbreak that infected 403 people across 30 states. Although 117 people were hospitalized, no deaths were reported.

Even for a small-scale processor, the financial and reputational repercussions of a foodborne illness outbreak can be devastating.

Defending Against Outbreaks

Raw ground meat sitting on a cutting board

Following best practices and placing a focus on the general principles of meat hygiene is a good start to boosting the food safety of your meat products. However, when you discover a problem, it can be difficult to determine the best course of action. To keep hazards from developing into outbreaks, consider partnering with an expert food safety consulting company like Log10®. These key offerings help facility managers reach peak food safety levels:

  • Lab testing: Analytical testing is your first line of defense against pathogens. Identifying bacteria quickly and accurately means you can take appropriate action and deploy your HACCP plan to contain the contamination as quickly as possible. Log10 offers some of the most sophisticated and thorough lab testing available.
  • Training: Food safety is only possible when every employee that comes in contact with the raw materials and product understands hygiene regulations. Log10’s technical and regulatory experts are ready to provide your team with the food safety training they need to maintain sanitary conditions.
  • Probiotics: Food and food contact surfaces can actually be treated with probiotics to eliminate certain pathogens. Log10 offers a custom probiotic, Pre-Liminate™ which is formulated specifically to your facility’s needs.

Meat processing regulations are complex and numerous. Adhering to each one often takes expert knowledge and the ability to coordinate large-scale shifts in policies and procedure. Log10 offers every service your facility needs to operate safely. We can provide the guidance you need to improve your regulatory compliance through expert training on Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and Good Laboratory Practices, as well as accredited on-site HACCP training.

Our consultation services have you covered, whether you’re just beginning to implement new food safety practices, or you want to test out the measures you’ve already taken. If you’re confident your lab or facility is on the right track, you can benefit from facility audits designed to prepare you for real FSMA inspections.

For more information on Log10’s research, testing, training and consultation services, contact us today.

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