Guest Blog: Why Walmart Has It Right

The following Guest Blog first appeared on Safety Zone, a regular blog feature on the site, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Dr. James Marsden.

Why Walmart Has It Right

I should start by saying that I do not work for Walmart as a consultant, advisor or in any other way. It is not my place to defend the company or its policies. However, I believe that last week Walmart took a courageous position to improve food safety for its customers – one that will eventually improve food safety for all consumers.

What they are requiring

The action taken by Walmart was to require that its beef suppliers meet performance standards designed to reduce the risk of pathogen contamination. Specifically, Walmart will require its beef slaughter suppliers to implement an approved intervention or a combination of interventions between post-hide removal and final trim production that will consistently produce, at a minimum, an initial cumulative 3-log reduction of enteric pathogens by June 2011. Thereafter, they are requesting a further reduction goal to achieve a total cumulative 5-log reduction between post-hide removal and final trim production by June 2012. All intervention steps must be scientifically validated. In addition, interventions must not require a label declaration or have a negative effect on product quality and shelf life and must be accepted by consumers. For ground beef suppliers that are not vertically integrated and do not have slaughter house control, Walmart will require an approved intervention or a combination of interventions that will consistently produce, at a minimum, a 2-log reduction of enteric pathogens on raw trim used for grinding. Again, the intervention process or intervention steps must be scientifically validated. Processing suppliers must be in compliance with this new process control standard by June 2011.

Why I agree

The move was supported by at least one major meatpacker – Tyson Fresh Meat Co., as well as consumer groups and academicians, including myself. News reports about the Beef Safety initiative, including those posted on Meatingplace elicited comments that expressed skepticism and doubt about Walmart’s motives and the need for new requirements. Here are my thoughts on the subject:

  1. The performance standards are designed to assure that all beef slaughter plants and processing plants utilize effective, validated interventions. Most of Walmart’s suppliers and most plants in the U.S. already have these interventions in place. I agree with Jim Dickson at Iowa State University who believes that the initiative is more about proving efficacy than it is about implementing new interventions. (See: Meatingplace story on this.)
  2. Before making the decision to implement the new performance standards, Walmart determined that suppliers that already have the required interventions in place are price competitive.
  3. Unfortunately, there are still beef slaughter plants and processors that either have not implemented effective interventions, or do not have supporting documentation to show that they are effective. Walmart is allowing more than a year for these companies to implement effective, validated interventions.
  4. In the manufacture of ground beef, product from multiple processors is often co-mingled. As a result, there may be an increased risk of contamination when beef from plants with inadequate interventions is utilized.
  5. Retailers like Walmart have no way of knowing if the beef they purchase for their customers was processed using effective interventions or not. When foodborne illness cases and recalls occur, they are still held accountable. In order to reduce the risk of these occurrences, retailers have the right to insist that their suppliers use the most effective interventions available and scientifically document their effectiveness in controlling pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella.
  6. It is worth noting that Walmart’s requirement for scientific validation of interventions is consistent with the in-plant validation requirements that were recently proposed by USDA-FSIS.

The bottom line is that it is time for all beef slaughter and processing plants to implement food safety systems for controlling E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. Most have already done so and as a result, beef products are safer now than at any time in history. If effective systems were universally applied, the incidence of pathogen contamination and foodborne disease cases and outbreaks associated with beef products could be further reduced. These are the real objectives of the Walmart Beef Safety initiative. Walmart deserves a lot of credit for taking a position that is long overdue.

About Jim Marsden: Dr. James L. Marsden is Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security at Kansas State University, and the senior science advisor for the North American Meat Processors Association. He is the past president of the American Meat Institute Foundation in Washington, DC and a graduate of Oklahoma State University.

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