Source: Auburn Unversity news release
The local foods movement continues to grow in the U.S., with an increasing number of consumers wanting to know where their food comes from and buying it at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture programs. It’s a social, face-to-face process that creates a connection with the families producing it.
One of the obstacles to further growth, however, is making sure that locally produced foods are produced and distributed safely.
Working with a $4 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Auburn University researchers are addressing the gaps between knowledge and practice in the production and distribution of local and regional foods, with the ultimate goal of ensuring a more secure food chain.
With recent trends showing that consumers prefer purchasing meats from local producers, Christy Bratcher – lead researcher, College of Agriculture professor and director of the Food Systems Institute – is working to make sure this meat is safe to eat.
“Sometimes smaller facilities do not have as many resources [as larger facilities], and, while there are definitely fairly inexpensive ways to assure a safe and wholesome product, many of the facilities have untrained employees who could use some extra training in processing practices and a clear understanding that their every activity in the processing facility has a potential to impact the safety of the product for the end consumer,” Bratcher said.
She says large production facilities have the monetary capital for investment in intervention strategies, such as steam pasteurization cabinets to make sure E. coli and other pathogens aren’t transferred from feces and intestinal contents to the meat.
To assist local processors, Bratcher’s team is working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System to put together talks on sanitary design to present to producers and packaging plants. She also has partnered with Auburn’s Lambert-Powell Meat Laboratory staff to develop a butchery school to train producers on proper sanitary design in facilities and for education on processing meat. They hope to implement the school in 2019.
The E. coli investigated for the research project do not typically harm cattle but certain species can be pathogenic to humans. The project looked at federally inspected small regional facilities, state-inspected very small regional facilities and very small local facilities. “For the small and very small regional facilities, there was no detectable E. coli at the end of the harvest process, while in the very small local facilities, there were still some positive carcasses,” she said.
The original research project began in 2012 to determine the presence of E. coli in beef cattle. However, while conducting the research, the presence of poultry animals in close proximity to cattle prompted Bratcher and her team to expand their research to Salmonella as well. They found that Salmonella was present on cattle farms where chickens and turkeys were present.
“We found that cattle infected with Salmonella sometimes do not appear sick enough for anyone to realize that they shouldn’t be harvested for food,” Bratcher said. “So we want to find out if there’s anything we can do to reduce the amount of Salmonella in those animals.”
She hopes her research efforts will lead to a safer food supply so consumers can be guaranteed they’re eating a healthy product, whether they buy meat from a local grocery store, farmers market, or chain store.
Auburn researchers are providing real-world solutions that provide health and economic benefits to consumers and producers.