A Gnawing Problem

Center sinks teeth into meat safety concerns

Food safety is a big concern for all consumers. Bacterial contamination in particular has occupied news headlines in recent years. Most of us remember recent reports of E. coli bacteria (officially known as E. coli 0157:H7) in some beef products and fruit juice. Salmonella, another potentially hazardous bacterium, has made the American public more cautious when cooking poultry or eggs. Both bacteria can result in sickness or even death.

Like most problems with potential to harm the public, once E. coli and Salmonella became publicized, people wanted to know what was being done about it.

In the early 1990s, the animal sciences department at Colorado State University embarked on a mission to emphasize its program in meat science. Recognizing its position of expertise in meat science research and teaching, as well as the need to better support Colorado's $3 billion animal industries, the animal sciences department established the Center for Red Meat Safety. The center's mission is to help industry and consumers deal with the complex chemical and biological aspects of safe meat production and marketing. The impact of the center's research and its practical application is recognized by consumer groups and the animal industry in Colorado and throughout the world.

The director of the Center for Red Meat Safety is animal sciences professor Glenn Schmidt, who also directs Colorado State University's Meat Science Program. Schmidt works with a team of five other faculty members known internationally for their expertise in meat microbiology, processing, marketing, packaging, safety, quality, livestock behavior, and animal equipment design. Ten graduate students are involved with research and teaching.

Extensive research conducted at the red meat safety center focuses mostly on reduction or elimination of bacterial contamination of red meat during processing. The center's research projects have investigated such practices as bathing animal carcasses with hot water, steam, acetic acid solutions or other food-grade chemical solutions, and steam vacuuming carcasses to remove dirt and fecal contamination. Other studies have looked at effective methods to remove hair from carcasses prior to carcass processing. Even further studies have looked at combinations of techniques used in sequence to reduce contamination.

Many of the techniques developed through research at the Center for Red Meat Safety are now in use at major meat processing companies throughout the nation. Faculty at the center find themselves busy conducting workshops, seminars, and training courses all over the country. Audiences include workers in food services, meat processing, and government agencies, as well as commercial food provisioners and restaurants.

But some of the most important teaching the center is engaged in happens right within the walls of Colorado State University. As Gary Smith, Monfort professor at the center puts it, "We're not just finding answers to meat safety problems. The students who help us unlock the answers to better food safety are the ones who now are going out into industry to put those practices into action. And with that, everybody wins. That's truly a best part of our outreach function," he says.

You might ask if all these techniques actually reduce or eliminate the threat of bacterial contamination of meat products. John Sofos, the center's top authority on meat microbiology, says yes, but cautions, "All these processes can be applied to a product that is still not safe to eat until it's properly cooked."

And that, in a way, is what the Center for Red Meat Safety at Colorado State is all about — because what people don't know can hurt them.