In the estimation of Len Huskey, Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) essentially is about taking responsibility. Huskey’s employer, Swift & Co., one of the nation’s largest pork processors, places great emphasis on its responsibility to provide safe and wholesome products to its customers. Swift had a functioning HACCP plan in place well before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced its mandatory version in the mid-1990s and, as one of the industry’s standard bearers, Swift has been through every ebb and flow as the regulation wound its way to full and final implementation nearly two years ago. Now, Huskey says, “It’s settled out a bit. The agency is taking a breath to see what the next step is.”

That next step could make industry even more accountable for the composition and disposition of its goods. USDA is floating a pilot plan in which industry would assume an even greater self-inspectional role on slaughter side. It will require technical training for people to be able to conduct additional duties. Huskey, who is Senior Vice President of Product Integrity/Research and Development, welcomes the challenge.

“We’ve embraced HACCP in our company, and it’s been good for the industry to be involved as the regulation develops and for companies to take ownership of their processes,” he says. “It has really raised the level of the playing field for everyone.”

Taking the initiative and shouldering responsibility for safe foods have long been part of the Swift canon. It is evidenced partly in the fact that the company maintains separate safety and quality control (QC) functions. “In many companies the quality and safety responsibilities are rolled into one job, but we saw fit to have a separate food safety manager for that very important segment of the business,” Huskey says. “Safety has a very high awareness level in our company. It starts with our president, Dennis Henley, who considers it to be a top priority.”

Food safety and quality are handled at the corporate level by Huskey, Director of Food Safety Luna Hwang and Director of QC Andy Marvin. Each of the company’s four facilities also is staffed with a QC manager and a food safety manager who report directly to corporate. These managers, in turn, oversee supervisors, technicians and food safety monitors on each shift.

A video conference call is held at the start of each day among the facility managers and corporate quality and safety officers. A number of issues are addressed, particularly those germane to the previous day’s performance, such as employee safety, product safety, sanitation and regulatory concerns. That morning’s pre-op sanitation and inspection are discussed, including how the plants fared on ATP test results and visual checks, and how these results compared to other days. If any deficiencies are noted, then “we talk about what corrective and preventative actions are being done to prevent them recurring,” Huskey says. “It is especially beneficial that each of the plants hear the others’ experiences.”

Getting Started
Along with the headquarters in Greeley, CO, Swift operates plants in Worthington, MN, Marshalltown, IA, Louisville, KY, and Santa Fe Springs, CA. The organization employees 5,500 people who produce fresh, enhanced, season-marinated and case-ready pork products. The customer base is retail, foodservice and further processing; the largest customer in this latter group is sister company Armour Swift-Eckrich. The plants are two-shift operations, with sanitation taking place on the third shift. Two plants handle the effort with in-house teams, while the other two use contract providers. Even here, “we have a management representative present during the third shift, who acts as a liaison between maintenance and the contractor,” Huskey says. “The maintenance people have things to do on third, as well, so we need to ensure good cooperation.” Plant employees perform the dry pick up before the contract sanitation crew goes to work.

Before each day’s production, QC technicians come in, fan out across the facility with flashlights and conduct an inspection. The food safety monitor also selects random areas for ATP checks using the Charm bioluminescence system. If results turn up unsatisfactory, then the crew recleans and resanitizes.

Regarding using the faster ATP test results to guide subsequent microbiological testing, Huskey says, “We have not been able to establish a strong correlation between ATP counts and microbiological results, though high counts could lead to a particular area or surface being swabbed.”

The lab supervisor or a lab technician takes swabs from random areas in the processing facility at least two days a week for microbiological testing. Problematic areas might be targeted, and floors, drains, walls, overhead structures and cooling units also are checked regularly. “We try to get a good representation of the plant, so it’s important to swab more than just direct contact surfaces,” Huskey says.

In-Plant Labs Make it “Personal”
Each of the company’s facilities maintains an in-house lab that functions primarily as a microbiological testing lab. Product and environmental swabs are tested for lactics, total plate counts, coliforms, generic E. coli and Pseudomonas. Specific media and standard culture methods are used. “We don’t think it is wise to be growing pathogens in our in-plant labs” Huskey says. Samples are sent to Warren Analytical Laboratories, Swift’s corporate laboratory, also located in Greeley, for testing for the presence of E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter.

Huskey says the company is looking at doing additional microbiological profiling, so that “we can profile how the flora in the plant might be changing and develop an early warning system.”

Fat analyses of trimmings and boneless muscle products are conducted in the in-house labs. Fat analysis is done using a CEM system, and an X-ray unit is used in the plant for bulk trimming testing. Further, advanced meat recovery systems require calcium testing, and qualitative tests are run for antibiotic residues. Suppliers’ lots are sampled randomly on a daily basis for antibiotic residues. “Over time, we can monitor all of our livestock suppliers,” Huskey says. “We require them to participate in the PQA program from the National Pork Board for the proper and prudent usage of antibiotics at the farm level.”

The swab test on premises (STOP) method is used to screen for antibiotic residues; the method is based on microbial inhibition. Samples are taken from the kidney, and if a suspect test result is achieved, the carcass is held while muscle tissue is sampled and sent to Warren for confirmatory testing. Warren also operates a molecular biology lab for doing DNA fingerprinting of bacteria using pulse-field gel electrophoresis. “This species identification helps us keep track of both the predominant organisms and any new species that might emerge, and allows us to do investigative work and pinpoint where they are found in the plant,” Huskey says.

Huskey adds that Warren, which is is accredited to ISO/IEC Guide 25, “has been doing a lot of work in the rapid methods arena and is working on several new microbiological technologies that are akin to ATP in their approach.”

Although the corporate lab plays an important role, and a corporate product development lab in Omaha, NE, affords Swift “great meat science capabilities,” Huskey believes running in-house labs is an important adjunct to HACCP. “Doing your testing in house builds buy-in and awareness of what’s actually happening in the plant. It makes it personal,” he says. “We share test results with key operating people and with our sanitation contractors so they all know what’s going on.”

Further, the quicker turnaround enabled by the labs permits more monitoring to be done and shelf-life studies gain more relevance. “People can watch the test and see how the products look to consumers after time on the shelves,” Huskey says.

Herd Mentality
While extensive testing and in-process interventions are key to building safety and quality into the final product, much of what impacts these characteristics occurs on the farm and during transport to Swift’s processing facilities. Four primary factors contribute to the quality of the pork, Huskey says: the rations for the hog, the genetics of the hog, the handling of the hog from farm through restraining and stunning at the plant, and the chilling and handling of the finished product.

“We contract for a portion of our hog supply and producers have certain thresholds they have to meet in terms of size, lean composition and quality in order to be eligible for a contract and to maintain the contract over the long term.” Other suppliers not under contract are monitored, as well, and the company has long-standing relationships with them.

To assess lean/fat content of incoming hogs, a fiber-optic probe called the Fat-o-Meter is inserted in a specific location in the back of the loin on every carcass. It measures fat and muscle depth, sensing a change in light reflectance as the probe moves from lean to fat. The two readings are put into a regression equation that takes carcass weight into account; from this measurement the company can predict the standard yield from the carcass.

In addition to evaluating carcass composition, Swift also calculates a meat quality value from a series of tests that make up the Pork Index to Quality (PIQ). In the plant, certain locations on carcasses or primal cuts are tested for pH, and colorimetric tests are run using handheld meters from HunterLab or Minolta. Lots are tested randomly, though an entire lot might be tested if a prospective supplier is being evaluated or if a supplier is considering a significant change in the genetics in the herd. Samples also are sent to the meat lab at Iowa State University, with which the company has a consulting arrangement. There, product is held in a cooler for the duration of its shelf life, then opened and tested for purge, which is a measure of water-holding capacity.

The product is then cooked and examined for loss, and a probe is used to give an instrumental measure of tenderness. Overall palatability also is assessed by trained sensory panels that evaluate flavor, tenderness, juiciness and chewiness. Results from these laboratory and in-plant tests are combined and compiled in a massive bank of data that Swift has baselined to assure that products are meeting acceptable PIQ levels on an ongoing basis. The information also is logged by lot and supplier so any variations can be readily identified and addressed.

Keep it Clean, Cold and Moving
Once hogs arrive at Swift for slaughter and fabrication, handling, temperature and sanitation take over as the key items to control. “We’ve profiled our operation through the dressing process and have demonstrated to our own satisfaction that we achieve a significant reduction in microorganisms,” Huskey says.

Before dressing begins, carcasses go through a scalding and dehairing operation that uses 140°F water. Singeing follows, where the entire carcass is exposed to flame “that makes a impact on anything that might have survived.” Carcasses then are pre-washed prior to opening for evisceration, and following evisceration a handheld steam vacuum is used, particularly in the hindquarters.

Before carcasses exit the kill floor, they go through another wash and then an organic acid wash and final rinse before proceeding to the deep chill cooler. Swift uses a proprietary deep chill technology that achieves proper carcass chill temperature in about half the time as comparable systems, Huskey says. “This accelerated rate of temperature decline delays the rate of postmortem pH change by reducing the build up of lactic acid in the muscle,” he says. “This means the consumer sees more uniform and desirable color, a pinkish red to red. We avoid the extremes of pale, soft, exudative (PSE) meat and very high pH, which gives a darker, too firm product. It keeps us in the middle of the road in terms of what consumer wants.”

Fabrication takes place the following day. “Now temperature really comes into play,” Huskey says. “We verify that carcass temperature has equalized and is acceptable for cutting. We know from our pre-op checks that the fabrication operation is very sanitary, and we’ve installed automatic cleaning and sanitizing sprays on the conveyors. The primal cuts pass over these. The basic idea is to keep it cold and moving rapidly.”

Several critical control points are monitored throughout the process and the resulting HACCP records are used not only to catalog the day’s events and verify that the process was in compliance, but “as a tool for improving operations,” Huskey says. “We apply statistical process control to our test results from daily testing for generic E. coli. If we have a spike we can identify what happened; maybe a new operator was working in a key position, for example. We also look for trends in our operational sanitation checks. It’s a very effective early warning system.”

While microbiological testing and testing for various quality parameters are considered separate bailiwicks at Swift, they certainly are considered equal. The protection of consumers and protection of the company’s brands in the marketplace call for a high level of vigilance and commitment to producing the best possible product every day. This commitment is evidenced in the fact that two Swift plants were the first meat processing facilities in the U.S. to be registered to the ISO 9002 quality standards. ‘We think this goes hand in hand with HACCP,” Huskey says, “in the sense that everyone is part of a quality management system that is geared to meet the customer’s expectations, just as HACCP is geared to meet expectations for product safety.”

Bruce Flickinger is a freelance writer specializing in the food and pharmaceutical industries.