Russ Daly: Your veterinary lab’s role in checking the safety of our food

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

I am a true believer in how safe our country’s food supply is, especially compared to much of the rest of the world. As a veterinarian working with food animal producers, I observed how their lives revolved around raising the healthiest and most wholesome animals possible. I’ve also observed the enormous differences between food production and sanitation practices in places like Vietnam, Guatemala, and Kenya and our country.

Most of those aspects of food safety come from the desire of our producers and food handlers to simply do the right thing. However, even if regulations and government agencies aren’t your favorites, one has to recognize the important role they play in the confidence we have in our food as well. From the USDA inspecting meat animals for wholesomeness at the packing plant, to the FDA monitoring feed additives for livestock, to state inspectors checking sanitation at local locker plants, all of these entities (and others) share some credit.

No system is perfect, of course. Despite all the firewalls we have in place, people still get sick from food – to the tune of 48 million people every year. Bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter are examples of the more common foodborne infections, causing intense intestinal illness in affected people, sometimes progressing to hospitalization and uncommonly, deaths. Everything from eggs to meat to fresh produce can be a vehicle for these germs.

Are the number of these infections decreasing or increasing over time? Are some food items becoming more responsible for problems than others? Are foodborne bacteria becoming more resistant to drugs we might use to treat the illnesses they cause? Our food safety agencies address these questions, too.

It might surprise some to know that SDSU’s Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Lab – yes, our animal disease lab – is helping to answer those food safety questions. It’s a natural fit. The scientific staff here has spent their careers identifying, growing, testing, and analyzing the germs that cause animal illness here in the northern plains. Many of those germs are identical to those causing foodborne illness.

Our lab is coming off its first year of a project partnership with the Food and Drug Administration. For years now, they’ve helped sponsor the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). This program looks at the frequency of germs in retail meats and their resistance to antibiotics. Other portions of the program are being run by the CDC (germs from sick people) and USDA (germs in food animals).

To do this work, lab staff does something they normally do on their off-hours: they go shopping. They pick up chicken, ground turkey and beef, and pork chops from meat cases in stores in North and South Dakota. The meat is taken back to SDSU and tested for bacteria – either pathogens that could make people sick, or more “normal” bacteria that serve as indicators. Any bacteria detected are tested for resistance against antibiotics.

The first year of testing showed that the Dakotas are doing pretty well compared to of the country as a whole. Low levels of salmonella (about 1 percent) and campylobacter (about 4 percent, mostly in chicken) were found in chicken and turkey, but not in ground beef or pork chops. These levels were generally lower than the most recent levels reported nationally. Antibiotic resistance levels were similar to national numbers.

Even though this year’s testing indicated the chance of obtaining a foodborne germ from meat products in the Dakotas is pretty low, it still reinforces the notion that the germs are out there – cleanliness in the kitchen and proper cooking is imperative.

For the first time, what’s happening in the Dakotas will be part of the national NARMS picture, thanks to the work of SDSU’s food safety lab. As the project continues, trends will be available to analyze. The data generated through the NARMS project helps us better understand how food safety is advancing — not only overall, but right here in our area.