ach year, about 9,000 Americans die because of illnesses they contract from contaminated food, and millions more become sick. On top of the trauma foodborne illness can cause families, it has a massive effect on the economy — $420 million in direct medical costs and $7.3 billion in lost productivity, slowed sales and layoffs.
But such losses are far from inevitable. In fact, scientists estimate that nearly 100 percent of foodborne illnesses can be prevented if food is handled properly from production to processing to preparation.
"While we are never going to eliminate pathogens such as E. coli and Listeria completely, we can — through research and education efforts taking place within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences — significantly reduce illness and deaths resulting from foodborne pathogens," says Dr. Duane Larick, a food science professor.
Indeed, our nation has the safest food supply in the world, thanks largely to land-grant universities like N.C. State. To strengthen such efforts, Larick is working to develop a meat-processing laboratory. The pilot-scale laboratory would be devoted to advancing the knowledge and technology of meat production and processing.
The $5.5 million building was funded by the North Carolina General Assembly, but the money was returned to the state this winter to help pay for disaster relief efforts. It was among $146.5 million in capital projects across the state that were put on hold.
When the building becomes reality, it will enable students and researchers to improve processing and packaging techniques that will assure safe and wholesome meat products. It also will provide a hands-on training ground for veterinarians who will be involved in meat inspections.
In addition, the facility will be used as a demonstration site to provide training to help meat industry and regulatory professionals learn about new food-safety practices and compliance with new federal and state legislation governing food processing.
Plans call for the 25,000-square-foot laboratory to be built on three acres at the College of Veterinary Medicine campus in West Raleigh. The university has submitted plans to the city of Raleigh and has responded to issues raised by the city’s comprehensive planning committee.
The proposed laboratory would operate at a small fraction of the capacity of a commercial meat processing plant, but that’s all that researchers and educators need to mimic conditions in processing plants and thus develop and demonstrate real-world ways to improve sanitation and safety, Larick says.
He expects the meat lab to receive animals on the average of twice a week, with shipments ranging from as few as four head of cattle to a maximum of 25 head of cattle, 50 hogs or 5,000 chickens per day. Over a year’s period, the lab will operate at no more than 10 percent of its full processing capacity.
Commercial operations, on the other hand, are capable of processing many thousands of animals a day. Lundy’s, a mid-sized pork processor in downtown Clinton, processes about 7,200 hogs a day, while a typical large midwestern cattle processor can handle 4,000 head per day.
The building will be equipped with state-of-the-art odor and noise suppression systems, allowing scientists to explore ways that large processors can eliminate noise and odor problems at their commercial facilities. Likewise, the College will explore ways to improve waste-handling systems to reduce the impact of processing operations on municipal waste treatment plants and watersheds.
Other research will focus on improving sanitary meat-handling techniques, reducing antibiotic and chemical residues and improving processing techniques to reduce bacterial contamination of meat.
N.C. State researchers were instrumental in developing some of the scientific methods to be used in enforcing new national food safety regulations mandated in the mid-1990s. The lab will allow continued development of methods.
In addition, it will be a place where researchers can look at ways to improve the health and safety of meat-plant workers.
Such efforts will complement work taking place at similar College pilot plants. In Schaub Hall, the department of food science operates pilot plants for aseptic processing and packaging and processing of dairy products, fruits and vegetables and meats. And in Morehead City, N.C. State has a pilot plant dedicated to seafood.
Such facilities have helped College faculty members stay on the forefront of food safety issues, investigating methods for detecting pathogens, developing better processing techniques and finding ways to safely market animal products such as meat, milk and eggs (see related article).
College faculty also work to make sure that North Carolina’s people have access to such new technology and research-based information. These efforts start on the farm, where specialists help animal producers find ways to reduce E. coli and other pathogens in their herds, and extend to hazard analysis training for processors and safe handling and preparation techniques for retailers.
Backed by specialists in the departments of family and consumer sciences and food science, Cooperative Extension agents in all 100 counties conduct food-safety training for both food-service workers and consumers.
ServSafe, an 18-hour certification program targeted to food-service workers, is exemplary. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, about 44 percent of all reported cases of foodborne illness are due to improper food-handling at restaurants and other food-service operations.
"Two reasons attributed to this situation are high turnover in food service and lack of training," says Dr. Angela Fraser, an Extension food-safety specialist. "In North Carolina, there are more than 25,000 food-service establishments employing nearly a quarter-million food handlers, making it the number two retail employer in North Carolina."
These workers make up "a grossly underserved audience ... in need of high-quality information. Most are very receptive to receiving new information."
Through ServSafe, managers and supervisors in 37 counties have been trained by Cooperative Extension agents working hand-in-hand with environmental health specialists from county health departments.
Meanwhile, the food science department is developing on-line courses to allow professionals in food-related industries to stay abreast of the latest research-based information related to food safety. One course would lead to certification as a food-safety coordinator and the other to certification as a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program, or HACCP, coordinator. HACCP is the food-safety system that federal regulations require food processors to follow.
To further help North Carolina’s small meat and poultry processors understand and comply with new regulations that went into effect in January, seven food science faculty members took to the road last summer to provide training in pathogen reduction. Because intensive training of even a single employee can significantly cut production at these smaller plants, the College and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ meat and poultry inspection division decided to offer one-day-a-week training sessions. The training took place over three weeks in seven locations across the state. That ensured that the 232 processors who took part weren’t away from their businesses for more than a day.
It also allowed the trainers to encourage participants to apply the principles they’d learned in class to their plants, then come back the following week with questions or other followup. "As a result, most of the plants had developed viable HACCP plans for their operations by the conclusion of the course," says Larick.
Such training has enhanced the College’s farm-to-table approach to reducing the effects of foodborne illnesses.
"While consumer education is important, it is not enough," Larick says. "Through research and education programs, such as ServSafe, HAACP training and the proposed meat-processing lab, we are helping to minimize the potential health and economic impacts of food-related illnesses throughout the chain of meat production, processing and preparation."Related: Rapid cooling will produce safer, higher-quality eggs