(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.)
The “Just cook it” approach doesn’t apply when it comes to beef safety in France.
One of the most popular beef products is raw ground beef - even raw products specifically targeting children. The beef industry in France is well aware of the risks associated with E. coli O157:H7 and non-O157:H7 STECs. Raw ground beef products must be delivered to consumers completely free of microbiological pathogens. For many products, there is no safety net provided by cooking.
Their approach to controlling microbiological hazards has many components that are similar to our food safety systems in the United States and others that are quite different.
Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a food safety meeting called SteakExpert sponsored by a large French cooperative – Elivia. The meeting included speakers from the Institute Pasteur, food safety regulators and a number of scientists with expertise in microbiological testing. After the meeting, I visited a beef slaughter plant near Angers, France that processes about 80 head per hour.
One of the biggest differences between the French slaughter plant and similar plants in the United States was in their air handling systems. There were no exposed refrigeration units. Air was moved in large enclosed tubes that prevented contamination from aerosols and airborne particles. This approach greatly reduces the risk of cross contamination during the slaughter process.
The slaughter process resembles an assembly line. It is divided into discreet processing steps and involves highly trained employees. A zone is designated for the initial components of the slaughter process and a separate “clean” zone is established for the second phase of the process, including evisceration. Knives and saws are fully sanitized after each cut. Remote hand sanitation stations are present for every individual employee.
In observing the hide pulling operation, I commented that the employees approach the task like they are performing surgery. The Director of Quality for the company responded that indeed they consider the slaughter process as “Surgery using big tools.”
Other differences from typical U.S. beef slaughter plants include the cleanliness of the animals entering the plant, the fact that most of the fat from the outside of the carcass is trimmed during the slaughter process and the use of rail separators that allow for 1.5 meters of space for each carcass during the chilling process.
The French company is evaluating the possibility of implementing a carcass pasteurization step using steam. Other than steam vacuuming, the current slaughter operation does not include chemical or thermal interventions.
I recognize that a large commercial U.S. slaughter operation is quite different from the plant I visited in France. The French plant processes about 80 head per hour versus over 400 head per hour in a large U.S. slaughter plant. The end result is similar, carcasses in the United States and France are free of visual defects and are also microbiologically clean. Still, there is much that can be learned from the hygienic approach that is taken in France.
I encourage U.S. beef companies and regulators to visit plants in France to observe the differences and similarities.