What Does 'Quality-Assured Pork' Really Mean?

Quality and quality assurance have become commonplace words in the pork industry. Producers know they need to produce a quality product.However, there are many definitions of quality in the pork business. For some, it is simply leanness. For others, it means customer satisfaction with the product.While this Blueprint concentrates primarily on quality assurance with regard to use of antimicrobials

Quality and quality assurance have become commonplace words in the pork industry. Producers know they need to produce a quality product.

However, there are many definitions of quality in the pork business. For some, it is simply leanness. For others, it means customer satisfaction with the product.

While this Blueprint concentrates primarily on quality assurance with regard to use of antimicrobials and management alternatives to antimicrobial usage, a brief overview of other quality concerns is included in this overview.

Quality can encompass a combination of factors including taste, appearance, color, leanness, ultimate pH, water-holding capacity, intramuscular fat, nutritional value, wholesomeness and safety.

Every segment of the chain has quality expectations and contributes to the quality of the product. Producers want to know how their pigs fare relative to these pork quality considerations.

Packers want to know how the pigs they buy measure up. They may choose to provide incentives or discounts to reinforce their carcass quality preferences.

Processors prefer pork with a high water-holding capacity to use in the manufacturing of their products because it holds a cure better.

Consumers, in general, want a uniform, reddish-pink, fresh pork product with minimal purge and minimal visible fat, but they want that product to be tender, juicy and full of flavor.

Targeting Pork Quality While there is no one standard definition that meets all of the quality components of the pork chain, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) Quality Solutions Committee, composed of producers, packers and researchers has developed a series of pork quality targets. These targets represent minimums or ranges for quality attributes in fresh pork loins measured at 24 hours post-mortem. (See Figure 1 on page 8 for the pork quality targets.)

NPPC has an active program to address pork quality issues such as color, ultimate pH, water-holding capacity and intramuscular fat. The program addresses these through:

Research on technologies which can be utilized to define, quantify or solve quality concerns,

Education and communication of factors affecting pork quality and ways to deal with these factors throughout the pork chain, and

Development of new tools which will involve transfer of the quality technology to those who can implement it.

Examples of current NPPC research efforts are development of new technologies to measure pork quality online, identification of some of the factors contributing to pork quality, development of new color and marbling standards, and defining domestic and international consumer attitudes and preferences.

Education and communication efforts center around development of fact sheets on various pork quality and safety issues. These consist of Pork 101 shortcourses, meat judging programs, conferences and summits, and development of a system for assuring pork quality based upon Quality Control Points (QCP) from farm to fabrication (see list of QCPs in Figure 2). This new quality system will be the basis for a producer checklist which will be developed into a producer education module.

New tools to transfer technology include quality audits and problem-solving teams, and workshops targeted at very specific quality subjects. Quality audits are being conducted in packing plants by a team of meat scientists who spend several days critically evaluating the factors which can affect pork quality. The team offers solutions to the problems they see.

These problem-solving teams target specific pork quality issues in the U.S. or abroad and are available to work with producers, input suppliers, packers, processors, foodservice, retail and export markets. Workshops are being developed to transfer current knowledge and technologies to the companies that need and can use these technologies to improve the quality of their products. A recent workshop was held on hog handling and stunning with primary emphasis of the effects on meat quality.

Food Safety Issues Meat quality is just one component of pork quality in its broadest definition. In recent years, food safety issues have captured increased attention from industry groups, consumers and government agencies in the U.S. and throughout the world.

U.S. pork producers have recognized the importance of producing a product in which their domestic and international customers can have the highest confidence. The most significant way U.S. pork producers have addressed their food safety responsibilities is through the Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) program. Producers developed and implemented the voluntary education program in 1989 to encourage responsible use of animal health products. Producers recognized that residues cannot be "fixed" by someone else further down the food chain.

In 1997, NPPC released a new version of the PQA program, which includes all three levels in one booklet. This revision more clearly emphasizes producers' responsibilities with regard to six Good Production Practices (GPP) related to antimicrobial residue avoidance (food safety) and four GPPs to help minimize the use of animal health products (efficient, quality production).

Considerable discussion has taken place with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and packers to ensure this revision meets packer and government expectations of producer responsibilities. See the story below for a breakdown of the 10 points.

Currently, 42,000 producers representing 80% of total U.S. pork production have completed the PQA program. The long-range goal is to reach 100% producer enrollment by 2000.

Because of the mandatory implementation of packer Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs, several packing plants recently announced plans to buy only hogs from PQA Level III producers. Those plants include: Farmland Industries, Hormel Foods, Rochelle Foods, Swift & Co. and Hatfield Quality Meats. In addition, the following packers are strongly encouraging their producers to be PQA Level III: IBP Inc., John Morrell & Co. and Seaboard.

Involvement by all U.S. producers in this food safety education effort is vital to assure domestic and international consumers alike that U.S. pork is the safest and highest quality meat protein in the world.

Packing Plant Changes FSIS has set new requirements for all meat and poultry plants to reduce the risk of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of meat and poultry products and to modernize USDA's meat and poultry inspection system. Plants are required to develop HACCP plans with a phase-in for implementation period depending on the size of the plant.

HACCP implementation dates are Jan. 26, 1998 for 500-plus employees, Jan. 25, 1999 for 10 to 500 employees and Jan. 25, 2000 for less than 10 employees.

HACCP is part of a food safety management system where plants evaluate each step in their process for areas where potential food safety problems or hazards could exist. Based on these identified hazards and their potential to be controlled, plants may identify Critical Control Points (CCP) in the process. Packers must develop specific procedures to prevent such problems.

Under HACCP, packers focus on three specific types of hazards: physical (i.e., broken needles), chemical (i.e., antimicrobial and pesticides) and microbial. HACCP systems shift the responsibility for potential hazards, such as violative tissue residues and broken needles, from the government to the plant. One area of control that packer HACCP plans must address is incoming animals. This has increased packer interest in on-farm production practices.

With regard to physical hazards, plants want to know that producers have instituted procedures to prevent broken injection needles. NPPC has conducted studies on needle strength and breakage susceptibility. Results indicated that needles and needle/hub assemblies are very resilient to needle breakage except when bent needles are re-straightened.

Currently, NPPC is studying needle designs from Japan that, on initial tests, appear to be more resistant to bending or breaking and may be more detectable with in-plant metal detection equipment.

With regard to chemical hazards, which include antimicrobial residues, several packers are now requiring their producer-suppliers to have completed the PQA program. This trend is expected to continue.

For microbial hazards, packers are required to meet performance standards for generic E. coli and salmonella. Packers are first taking steps within their plants to meet the microbial standards.

But there is increased interest in what can be done at the farm to reduce levels of potentially harmful bacteria. Since 1994, NPPC has had a very aggressive, on-farm food safety research program focused on the feasibility of HACCP-like systems at the farm level for control of potential human pathogens. Potential pathogens of interest include Trichinella spiralis, Toxoplasma gondii, salmonella, Yersinia enterocolitica and campylobacter.

Currently, there is not enough information to provide producers with specific recommendations to address bacteria such as salmonella at the farm level. NPPC is continuing to work with key researchers and the American Association of Swine Practitioners (AASP) to develop Good Production Practices for salmonella control.

Trichinae Certification Historically, trichinae is the first food safety issue that comes to mind with pork. But, trichinae incidence in pork is rare today. The USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System's National Swine Survey in 1995 showed an infection rate of 0.013%.

However, U.S. pork is still stigmatized due to public perception and lack of education, resulting in consumers continuing to overcook pork products.

To overcome these obstacles, NPPC in conjunction with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and FSIS has been developing a Trichinae Certification Program. Several pilot projects have been conducted to develop an on-farm audit for the risk factors for trichinae. These risk factors include ingestion of wildlife or rodents, feeding uncooked waste products containing animal products, general sanitation, hygiene, and biosecurity as they influence vermin attraction, and swine carcass removal and disposal methods.

Farm management strategies for eliminating the risk of infection are simple and usually easy to put in place. Most management systems now in use lack trichinae infection risk factors; this can be documented and monitored through the certification process.

Trichinae certification will be based on an on-farm audit conducted by specially trained veterinarians with USDA program oversight. Startup of the next phase of the program is planned to take place sometime this year.

The certification process includes the following elements:

1.Veterinarians, trained in good production practices relative to trichinae, work with their producers to ensure that trichinae infection on-farm risks are minimized. The on-farm audit will document the absence of trichinae infection risks. Audits will be done periodically to ensure that good production practices, relative to trichinae, remain in place.

2. On a regular basis, statistical samples of certified herds will be tested at slaughter using the ELISA test to verify the absence of infection.

3. Government veterinarians will conduct random "spot audits" of certifications to ensure completeness and to build credibility among trade partners regarding the certification process.

Certification will allow the U.S. to better compete in the fresh pork international market, and it will help change the perceptions of pork held by domestic consumers. With the cooperation of producers, veterinarians, packers, and the government, progress will be made in removing the stigma of trichinae from pork.

In addition, a workable model for on-farm food safety certification for other pathogens of public health significance will have been developed.

Antimicrobial Use And Resistance Recently, there has been heightened interest by the public health community, media, consumers, government and industry in the potential for misuse of livestock antimicrobials. The fear is the use in animals will result in the transfer of resistant bacteria to humans. Subsequent articles in this Blueprint address this issue in more detail.

Many activities are taking place to provide information to better understand the scope of this issue. NPPC, in cooperation with AASP, has formed a Pharmaceutical Issues Task Force which is reviewing the current science regarding antimicrobial use in animal agriculture. This task force will recommend a sustainable position for the pork industry. Research projects, educational programs for producers and veterinarians, and policy positions are currently being developed.

NPPC in cooperation with the National Pork Board has invested significant producer checkoff funds to help answer some of the many questions that need to be addressed. In addition, a working group will be looking at alternatives to antimicrobial use. NPPC supports:

Adequate funding for a strong, scientifically defensible surveillance program to detect changes in microbial sensitivity. Programs that provide this type of relevant data are essential to preserving the usefulness of antibiotics.

Research to safeguard the effectiveness of antibiotics on the market now and those that will be available in the future.

Regulatory decisions regarding antimicrobial use in animals that are reviewed and carefully scrutinized by the scientific community and scientifically defensible.

A timely, efficient and scientifically sound process for new product approvals by the FDA.

Broad-based educational programs for everyone who prescribes, administers or uses antimicrobials including veterinarians, producers, physicians and patients.

Future Quality Assurance Needs Many countries have developed or are developing quality assurance programs for their pork production systems. Examples include the Integrated Quality Control Program in the Netherlands, the Salmonella Control and Monitoring Program in Denmark, and the United Kingdom's Farm Assured British Pigs Program.

Enhancements to the current PQA program in the U.S. are under discussion. Considerations include adding an auditable component on the farm for the Good Production Practices. There may be modules added to address specific issues such as trichinae certification, quality certification including genetics, nutrition and animal handling, and Good Production Practices for preharvest control of pathogens.

In the future, the modules producers choose to receive certification in may depend on the quality assurances their market opportunities require. Pork production is no different than any other business - attention must be directed to meeting consumer needs and increasing expectations for a quality product. Participation in these types of programs may be part of the cost of being in the pork business in the future.

There are 10 Good Production Practices (GPP) identified in Level III of the Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) program.

1. Identify and track all treated animals.

2. Maintain medication and treatment records.

3. Properly store, label and account for all drug products and medicated feeds.

4. Obtain and use veterinary prescription drugs only based on a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

5. Educate all employees and family members on proper administration techniques and withdrawal times.

6. Use drug residue tests when appropriate.

7. Establish efficient quality production and an effective herd health management plan.

8. Provide proper swine care.

9. Follow appropriate, on-farm feed processing and commercial feed processor procedures.

10. Complete the quality assurance checklist annually, and re-certify every two years.

The National Pork Producers Council's Pork Quality Solutions Team has developed a series of pork quality targets.

The targets represent minimums or ranges for quality attributes in fresh pork loin measured at 24 hours post-mortem.

These guidelines (see Figure 1 on page 8) are not intended to be specifications, nor are they standards for industry use. Rather, they are intended to be the cutting edge of measures for each parameter. As such, they are intended to be dynamic in nature, evolving as improvements are made over time.

Some targets are not intended to be exact for all technologies available to measure that particular trait. For example, water-holding capacity is generally expressed as drip loss, no matter how that parameter is measured.

Many targets appear as ranges due to the differences in needs of different segments of the industry.

For example, intramuscular fat is expressed as a range with the minimum reflecting consumer retail purchase requirements and minimum product eating satisfaction requirements.

The maximum reflects a compromise between expectations based upon nutritional and health concerns (lightly marbled) and the eating experience based upon maximum eating satisfaction (heavily marbled).