IT is shorter than the width of a strand of spider-web silk. But it is now challenging the stability of an industry and of Philippine authority. Experts call it Salmonella. It arrived in May.
So the Department of Agriculture (DA) believes, as some in-bound shipments of mechanically deboned meat of chicken and beef from Brazil, which arrived sometime between May and June, tested positive for Salmonella.
The discovery of the existence of this pathogen in the meat imports prompted the government agency to impose a temporary ban on goods coming from a country more than 18,000 km away.
The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies Salmonella as one of the major causes of foodborne illnesses, or commonly known as “food poisoning,” around the globe. In fact, the WHO identified the species, which measures 2 to 5 microns, as one of the four key global causes of diarrheal diseases.
“Most cases of salmonellosis [a symptomatic infection caused by bacteria of the Salmonella type] are mild,” the WHO said. “However, sometimes it can be life-threatening. The severity of the disease depends on host factors and the serotype of Salmonella.”
“The bacteria are generally transmitted to humans through consumption of contaminated food of animal origin, mainly meat, poultry, eggs and milk,” the WHO added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also identified other commodities that could be contaminated with Salmonella: ground beef, tuna, pork, tomatoes, sprouts and even peanut butter.
The CDC estimates that at least a million food-borne illnesses in the United States are caused by Salmonella annually. About 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths in the US annually are attributed to Salmonella, making it the deadliest pathogen.
“Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and most persons recover without treatment,” the CDC said. “However, in some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized.”
The CDC is a federal agency that conducts and supports health promotion, prevention and preparedness activities in the United States, with the goal of improving overall public health.
THE National Meat Inspection Service (NMIS), an attached agency of the DA, started performing tight inspections on all beef and poultry meat imports from Brazil on March 24. This was done following media reports of the alleged “rotten” Brazilian meat in March and the submitted communication of Brazil to the World Trade Organization on March 22.
Upon discovery that meat imports from Brazil tested positive for Salmonella in July, the DA immediately imposed a ban on the imports.
At first, the DA banned the importation of meat from one specific Brazilian meat-packing plant, where one of the contaminated shipments came from. The DA later on expanded the ban to cover 24 more Brazilian meat-packing plants.
However, on July 31, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol issued Memorandum Order 32 authorizing the temporary suspension of the accreditation of all Brazilian foreign-meat establishments (FMEs).
The order formalizes the DA chief’s earlier pronouncement that he will impose a total ban on Brazilian meat imports and repeals MO 30, which imposed a temporary import ban on 25 Brazilian FMEs.
“In the meantime that [we] are conducting tests, we can temporarily stop the importation from Brazil and then clear them [meat-packing plants] one by one,” Piñol told reporters in an interview on July 20. “It will be a total ban of all Brazilian companies. But we will clear them one by one as we conduct the validation.”
Piñol slapped the ban based on the guidelines provided under NMIS Memorandum Circular 9-2008-5, Series of 2008, which indicates a “zero-tolerance policy” on Salmonella. The memorandum circular, titled “Microbiological limits for assessment of microbiological quality fresh, chilled and frozen meat,” states that “microbiological limits for salmonella spp. must be absent in 25 grams sample.” Piñol emphasized the MC’s provision in MO 32, a copy of which was given to reporters on August 7.
According to the DA chief, a total of 246 out of 492 container vans were sampled and subjected to laboratory analysis from March 1 to June 30, wherein samples from 18 containers, or 7 percent, tested positive for Salmonella.
The DA is now preparing to send a mission to Brazil that would physically inspect and investigate some 25 FMEs involved in the shipments that were tainted with Salmonella.
“They will check the facilities and then, as soon as they are cleared, we will lift their bans [sic] one by one,” Piñol said.
Based on the list available on the NMIS web site as of September 16, 2016, there are about 57 accredited Brazil-based FMEs allowed to export meat and meat products to the Philippines.
However, the document showed that the validity of the accreditation of all 56 FMEs in Brazil is “for revalidation”.
HOWEVER, the DA drew flak from the industries affected by the imposition of import bans. These included meat importers, traders and even meat processors.
The Meat Importers and Traders Association (Mita) has urged the DA to reconsider its zero-tolerance policy on Salmonella. The Mita said the tests conducted by the government on meat imports are not in accordance with the Codex Alimentarius.
Under MC9-2008-5, fresh meat and offals, chilled meat and offals, frozen meat and offals and chilled/frozen comminuted meat/offals are classified under “Case 1” and “Case 10.” (An offal is the internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal.)
According to the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF), “Case 1” of raw meat for total plate count (TPC) includes: carcass meat before chilling, chilled carcass meat, chilled edible offal, frozen carcass meat, frozen boneless meat, frozen comminuted meat and frozen edible offal.
Meanwhile, the “Case 10” classification is used to measure the presence of Salmonella in cooked poultry meat, according to ICMSF. Testing of E. coli in fresh and frozen fish is classified as “Case 4”.
“Obviously it is physically impossible for meat and offal to be both raw and cooked at the same time. It has to be one or the other. As well, chicken MDM [mechanically deboned meat] is not fish,” Mita President Jesus C. Cham said in a letter addressed to NMIS Executive Director Ernesto S. Gonzales dated July 13.
“Hence, we respectfully request that MC9-2008-5 be withdrawn and reissued to adhere to Codex Alimentarius Commission recommendations. As a logical consequence, we request that the zero-tolerance policy on Salmonella on raw meat be discontinued,” Cham added in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the BusinessMirror.
Citing the reasons above, Cham said it is wrong for the Philippines to ban Brazil imports solely on the basis of Salmonella.
“Excessive bacteria would be an acceptable justification, provided that their products consistently exceeded the limits,” he said. “The Philippines is applying the wrong tests and consequently arriving at the wrong conclusions and policy.”
Cham added that Salmonella in raw meat is not a concern, as all bacteria found in raw meat would be killed by cooking, especially when very well done, like what Filipinos usually do.
“Salmonella in fully cooked ready-to-eat processed meat is dangerous. But you can see from the international standards it is not a concern in raw meat,” he said.
“The concern in raw meat is the total bacteria population or aerobic plate count, also referred to as TPC. As long as TPC is within limits then the meat is fit for human consumption. Meaning, it is fit for cooking, not necessarily safe if eaten raw or half-cooked,” he added.
THE Philippine Association of Meat Processors Inc. (Pampi) also appealed to the government to reconsider its zero-tolerance policy for Salmonella in raw materials, as this could increase the retail price of canned goods, such as luncheon meat.
Pampi Director Rex E. Agarrado said removing Brazil from the list of possible sources of meat for the Philippines, just after lifting the ban on European exporters, could jack up the prices of raw materials, such as MDM.
“With this development, we expect a repeat of what happened in the first quarter, when chicken MDM prices doubled,” Agarrado told the BusinessMirror.
“The estimated impact of this is that, for hot dogs, the retail price could go up by 10 percent to 15 percent,” he added. “For canned goods that are MDM-based, such as meat loaf, beef loaf and luncheon meat, prices could go up by as much as 10 percent.”
Agarrado pointed out they are giving “101 percent” support “that there should be zero tolerance for Salmonella in finished products, but not for raw materials, which undergo a ‘kill process’.”
Agarrado said salmonella is killed at a temperature of 71°C.
“When we can our products we subject it to 118°C to 121°C. That’s close to double the temperature that is necessary to kill the organism,” he explained. “Our hot dog-producing members’ minimum internal temperature in cooking hot dogs is 75°C and some even reach 82°C.”
He noted that other countries and renowned institutions, such as the North American Meat Institute, have ruled out that Salmonella in ground beef and chicken mechanically deboned meat that are intended to be cooked “does not constitute a violation of federal rules since cooking destroys this”. Agarrado also said the United Kingdom does not have standards for Salmonella in minced beef or MDM.
“Likewise, Australia recognizes—and uses the word politically—an unavoidable level of Salmonella in raw chicken or material,” he said. “In a baseline study in 2010 they found that raw poultry that is being sold in the market is likely to be contaminated with Salmonella.”
Agarrado said his group wants the DA to address the issue on Salmonella in raw materials based on science. “We are asking for sobriety. We will never want to put our consumers at risk.” Pampi joined the Mita in asking the government to review its “zero-tolerance” policy for Salmonella in raw materials.
HOWEVER, the NMIS is adamant that the policy should remain in force despite the appeal of meat importers and processors to review and make the policy consistent with international standards.
“As I have said, we will not compromise. We are doing this to safeguard public health, because that is our main objective,” Gonzales told the BusinessMirror. “We set the guidelines; we set the policy, so [meat importers and processors] would have to comply with that. If they cannot, then I am sorry.”
The NMIS chief said meat processors and importers could consider raising the matter of reviewing the zero-tolerance policy with Piñol.
“The NMIS recommends policies and it is up to the secretary whether he would approve it or not,” Gonzales said. In an earlier interview, Piñol said he is open to the possibility of discussing the government’s zero-tolerance policy with stakeholders in the local meat industry.
“We cannot just implement what [meat industry stakeholders] are recommending. We need to study the recommendation; we cannot just change policies overnight,” he said.
For his part, the agriculture chief is cognizant that imposing a blanket ban on Brazil would affect Manila’s meat trade, as the South American country is one of the country’s major sources of meat. Brazil accounts for 6 percent of the Philippines’s annual meat imports.
“We cannot do anything about it. We have to make sure that our consumers are protected more than anything else,” Piñol said. “Trade can always resume the moment things are cleared. Our first and foremost priority would be the safety of our consumers.”
However, the agriculture chief said he is open to the possibility of discussing the government’s zero-tolerance policy with stakeholders in the local meat industry.
“While we have to make a policy on that, we just cannot implement what they are recommending. We have to study it, we just cannot change policies overnight,” Piñol said. “We have to call industry stakeholders again and discuss this with them.”
The NMIS, however, made an assurance that Philippine markets remain free of Salmonella-tainted meat products. Gonzales said the agency has also not recorded any new cases of shipments contaminated with the bacteria since July. The NMIS, an attached agency of the DA, is the sole national controlling authority on all matters pertaining to meat inspection and hygiene.
Data obtained by the BusinessMirror from the Bureau of Animal Industry showed that the country’s meat imports in the first half of the year declined by nearly 13 percent to 280,269.056 metric tons (MT), from 322,013.273 MT a year ago.
WHILE Salmonella is easily killed when cooked at a temperature of at least 70°C, Gonzales pointed out that all strains of Salmonella are “harmful” to humans.
“All strains of Salmonella are harmful to humans; that doesn’t change. The effect depends on the amount of contaminated food you have consumed,” he said. “If you eat a chicken that is heavily infested with Salmonella, you can even die.”
Indeed, the growing case of Salmonella in the world has prompted the WHO to convene the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the body overseeing the Codex Alimentarius, to adopt guidelines and standards in handling the bacteria in meat.
“It is therefore no surprise that the Codex Alimentarius has recently proposed guidelines for the control of Salmonella in meat and poultry. The recently adopted guidelines provide a clear path to the reduction of salmonellosis,” said Jose Emilio Esteban, chairman of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene.
“They address good production practices and potential interventions to reduce transmission. They also emphasize the importance of education and training for those involved in the food chain from farm to fork,” Esteban added.
The Codex Alimentarius, commonly known as “Food Code,” recommends thorough cooking as a way to eliminate Salmonella in meat.
“Cooking chicken meat thoroughly will eliminate Campylobacter and Salmonella,” it said. “It has been shown that cooking chicken meat to 165°F (74°C) minimum internal temperature, with no hold time, will give at least a 7 log10 [a logarithmic formula] reduction in both Campylobacter and Salmonella.”
The Food Code also encourages consumers to be aware of the ways to prevent the contamination of Salmonella in food.
“Consumer education should focus on handling, hand washing, cooking, storage, thawing, prevention of cross contamination, and prevention of temperature abuse,” it said.
The Codex Alimentarius is a joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WHO food standards program that aims to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.
Meanwhile, the CDC advises consumers to observe the clean, separate, cook and chill guidelines to avoid contamination of Salmonella in handling and preparing food.
First, CDC said that consumers should wash hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling uncooked eggs, or raw meat, poultry and seafood and their juices.
“Wash utensils, cutting boards, dishes and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to prepare the next item,” it said. “Don’t wash raw poultry, meat, and eggs before cooking. Germs can spread to other foods, utensils and surfaces.”
CDC added that consumers should observe separating raw meat, eggs, seafood from other foods, especially when preparing cooked food.
“Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from other foods in your grocery cart and in your refrigerator. Keep eggs in the original carton and store them in the main part of the refrigerator, not in the door,” it said. “Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from ready-to-eat foods, such as salads and deli meat. Use separate cutting boards and plates for produce and for raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.”
The CDC also pointed out that one should never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
CDC also advised consumers to cooked raw meat at a safe internal temperature to ensure the elimination of Salmonella in the food. Raw beef, veal, lamb, fish, pork and ham should be cooked at 145°F, while ground meat (beef, pork, veal and lamb) and egg dishes should be cooked at 160°F.
Meanwhile, poultry meat, such as chicken, turkey and duck, including grounded ones, and casseroles should be cooked at a 165°F level.
CDC also advised consumers to keep refrigerator temperature at 40°F or colder.
Image credits: Skypixel | Dreamstime.com, Satit Sae Tiw | Dreamstime, Branex | Dreamstime.com