One of the primary reasons the United States lacks a national animal identification system is the fervent perception among farmers and ranchers that such a system would result in government control over their livestock and an invasion of privacy. There also exists the perception that an animal ID system would provide large agribusinesses with an opportunity to exert additional influence over farmers.

This undercurrent of distrust has long permeated food safety discussions and has posed a significant political barrier in the consideration of food safety modernization efforts for meat and poultry products. A recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts on decreasing contamination on farms and feedlots before slaughter attempts to lower this barrier and represents an important addition to this debate on how to produce safer meat.

The report, Food Safety From Farm to Fork, concluded that expanded use of evidence-based food safety interventions on farms and feedlots would significantly reduce food-borne illness rates from contaminated meat and poultry products. The report notes that cattle, poultry, and swine often harbor pathogens before they are shipped to slaughterhouse establishments, which is where the oversight authority of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service begins.

While existing pre-harvest interventions can reduce pathogens to some extent, the report argued that a comprehensive approach is necessary to achieve significant reductions. The report also maintained that controlling pathogens at the farm level can help reduce human illnesses beyond meat and poultry products, arguing that secondary contamination of downstream products due to the risk of manure runoff also could decrease.

In order to develop and increase adoption of effective pathogen control strategies, the report made the following recommendations:

  • Government agencies should fund research into how to best manage herds or flocks to maintain animal health and eliminate the presence of harmful bacteria;
  • Regulatory agencies should provide incentives for the implementation of pre-harvest food safety interventions, including those that enhance biosecurity and herd and flock management practices;
  • Industry should consider individual pre-harvest interventions within the larger context of managing the health of the herd or flock, and implement adequate pathogen controls, such as setting standards for the safety of feed and water on farms and feedlots; and
  • All stakeholders should develop information technology infrastructure and capacity to encourage sharing of efficacy and safety data.

The release of this report coincides with another recent report commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Cargill that outlined a list of recommendations to modernize the meat and poultry oversight system in the US. The goal of the recommendations is to transform the current inspection system for FSIS-regulated products into one that is more science- and risk-based, protective of public health, and able to address the entire “farm-to-fork-to-physician continuum” of the meat and poultry production system.

The Food Safety From Farm to Fork report complements the recommendations to modernize the system by providing a supporting argument for the need for pre-harvest interventions. Both reports emphasize a collaborative approach among producers, regulators, consumers, and researchers that will be critical in overcoming the undercurrent of mistrust among farmers and ranchers, and facilitating this modernization effort.