Hormel to only buy Pork Quality Assurance Level III hogs in 1999.

Up to now, pork packers have borne the brunt of the responsibility for food safety.

"Right now, the packers have taken on that responsibility," says Ray Bjornson of Hormel Foods Corp.,Austin, MN. "But ultimately, it is going to be shared by the entire industry. The industry includes everybody from the time before the pig is conceived through the time it gets into the retail case and is picked up by the consumer," he continues. That especially includes the time the pig is in the producer's care, Bjornson emphasizes.

"The industry as a whole is responsible for supplying a safe, wholesome product to the consumer, and we have to work together to accomplish that goal," he adds.

New Hog Buying Policy The federal government enacted a new meat and poultry inspection program on Jan. 26, 1998, whereby large packing plants (500 employees and up) must have a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan in place to prevent product contamination.

Hormel recently announced a new hog buying policy which coincides with the HACCP plan. Bjornson says beginning Jan. 1, 1999, the company will no longer buy hogs unless they are from PQA (Pork Quality Assurance) program Level III certified producers. PQA is a three-stage, voluntary educational program sponsored by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), in cooperation with the National Pork Board. By enrolling, producers review their whole production system with their verifier and learn how to raise hogs free of violative chemical residues.

Bjornson explains the new policy includes all hogs, not just those sold under contract, as has been rumored. Currently, all contracted hogs must be at Level III or working toward that status.

He stresses the policy was not implemented in direct response to the HACCP rule. "It's just the right thing to do. Hormel is a leader and our customers deserve safe, wholesome products, and this is just one more way to ensure that they get that."

Under PQA, producers must recertify every two years to retain status. Bjornson says Hormel will be making sure producers in all of their buying areas know about recertification procedures as well as educational meetings where producers can learn about the PQA program.

State Producer Support Minnesota's pork industry strongly supports Hormel's move, according to David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association (MPPA).

At its annual meeting in January, the producer group passed resolutions supporting the PQA program. The chief one asks that all U.S. producers reach PQA Level III certification by the year 2000.

"The idea is that if the U.S. is going to continue to grow world markets and be serious about that, and also if we want to have the confidence of our domestic consumers, we need to be professional in the way that we produce pork. We need to be responsible in how we manage quality assurance," comments Preisler.

In a second resolution, the MPPA supported a national effort to form an identification system for all hogs to allow food safety problems to be traced back to the farm of origin. Preisler notes there already is a fairly reliable slap-tattoo system for identifying market hogs, but the backtag system for sows and boars has a poor record of retention. Should a food safety crisis arise, the industry needs the capability of tracing back problems, to be able to isolate them and correct them, he adds.

Packer Testing Options To comply with the new HACCP regulations, packers must write HACCP plans which show that they have some knowledge of the incoming animals, the premise where they come from, explains Paul Sundberg, DVM, director of Veterinary Issues for the NPPC. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) doesn't specify how that should be done. One approach is that taken by Hormel, he says. There are three other options:

1. Test random numbers of hogs for violative chemical residues.

There will also be bacterial screening to develop the baseline data required by FSIS for E. coli and salmonella. But don't expect to see full-fledged testing for microbiological hazards with traceback to the farm because researchers know little about preventing those problems on farm.

2. Suggest that animal drug residues aren't a food safety hazard at all, at least in market hogs. "The incidence of violative residues is so low, it has consistently been at the 1% or less detection level," explains Sundberg. "We have history that shows since the PQA program started in 1989, we in the pork industry have been at or below the 1% detection level on antibiotic residues in market hogs so that those chemical residues have practically become a non-issue."

3. A letter of guarantee from the producer that says his/her animals aren't in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

Other Packer Responses At Smithfield Foods, two slaughter plants in Virginia and one in North Carolina, suppliers are required to sign a letter of guarantee to accompany each load of hogs, says Jeff Luckman, vice president of Livestock Procurement at Smithfield. The letter, drafted by the company, indicates the supplier is following proper drug withdrawal guidelines and is feeding and managing each load of hogs sent to the packer in a quality assurance manner.

Luckman explains that the Smithfield plants on the East Coast are dealing with basically about 30 large suppliers, the majority of whom are at Level III of the PQA program. "We have no problems with the producers. We work with quality suppliers and they have nothing to hide."

Jeff Arner, manager, Livestock Procurement, Hatfield Quality Meats, Hatfield, PA, says he is confident that most of their producers are already at PQA Level III, although there are no formal requirements for certification.

"Hatfield has aggressively worked with their suppliers to become PQA Level III certified," adds Arner. "We have promoted the PQA program by participating in regional meetings and by identifying Level III status on our settlement sheets. To document Level III status, producers must have a current Level III certificate on file at Hatfield. We strongly believe the PQA program is an important first step in ensuring a safe food supply for our customers."

Sioux-Preme Packing at Sioux Center, IA, is a small packing/processing facility that doesn't have to implement a HACCP program in the plant until January 2000, when all meat and poultry plants must be in compliance.

Company official Gary Malenke has two big concerns regarding pork quality assurance. The first is the need for education to ensure that if producers and packers do their job, that it will be carried through the food chain until the consumer makes a purchase.

According to the American Meat Institute (AMI), thousands of meat and poultry plant workers have been trained to use HACCP plans to produce safer products. But tens of thousands of other food industry employees are also being trained how to use HACCP, from workers in the supermarket to foodservice and restaurants. Consumers are also getting better education through the new federally sponsored "Fight Bac!" public health education campaign which teaches consumers to clean, chill, cook and store foods properly.

But, Malenke and other packers wonder about the ability to monitor and follow through on PQA program standards.

PQA Program Status PQA program coordinator Sundberg is keenly aware of Malenke's concern about monitoring, and believes that most producers who participate keep up with the key elements of the program.

As of early February, there were 21,200 certified, Level III PQA producers, who are responsible for the "vast majority" of pigs produced in the United States, says Sundberg.

Hormel's recent announcement has given a big boost to the producer numbers in the PQA program, he explains. There have been more than 2,000 requests for PQA materials in just the last few weeks.

The sudden windfall for requests comes because there are still a number of producers who aren't familiar with the PQA program, says Sundberg.

While the PQA program still focuses on proper use and withdrawal of animal drugs, Sundberg reminds producers of a few changes announced last summer. "We added an explanation of what HACCP is and how the producer can satisfy packer requirements within the context of the HACCP program in their role as a supplier." And, in addition to the drug handling and residue avoidance information in the new food safety section, new material is provided on herd health plans, animal welfare and continuing education.

"Perhaps packers may not be directly concerned if you have a herd health program, but it does affect how and if you use drugs on your farm and absolutely plays a role in the whole industry's pre-harvest food safety program," he says.

Sundberg is currently reviewing an eight-state survey of producer attitudes about recent PQA program changes.

What comes after PQA Level III has not been decided, he says. NPPC is considering a professional pork producer or similar classification which could incorporate other assurance programs such as the environmental assurance program.

PQA Level III Standard But for now, PQA Level III is the gold standard. To Worthington, MN, pork producer Linden Olson, the industry must expect the quality of its product to be just as good as what producers would demand of any other product they may buy in the store.

"The days of generic pork are probably limited if for no other reason than because we as consumers demand assurances about what we are eating that we have not demanded in the past. It is very hard to do that without some sort of program controls in place all along the pork chain," relates Olson.

Therefore, the product standard soon becomes PQA Level III pork, he predicts. Instead of a premium, producers may be looking at discounts for not achieving that standard, he says.

Hormel's Bjornson emphasizes they do not anticipate paying premiums for production practices producers are supposed to be following anyway.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing a record $573 million in "user fees" to pay for meat and poultry inspection.

The American Meat Institute (AMI), representing the nation's meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants, strongly opposes the proposal in USDA's fiscal year 1999 budget.

"The $573 million budget request for user fees is the largest ever," says AMI President J. Patrick Boyle. "And I can say with certainty it will be the most vigorously opposed."

The user fee proposal is opposed by industry, producer, consumer and labor groups alike.

Every attempt to impose user fees has failed, including last year's attempt to collect $390 million in fees.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman defends the user fees proposal as necessary to doing a solid job of inspecting people's food, particularly with the new HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) system.

Glickman also cites a reduction in his budget from $63 billion in 1993 to $54.3 billion for FY '99, including a 2% cut in the number of food inspectors. There are about 7,500 inspectors working in 6,400 plants around the country.

As it stands, taxpayers pay the cost of inspection unless an inspector works overtime.

Under USDA's plan, processors would pay the full cost through a fee based on production volume. Glickman said the plan would cost consumers about a penney a pound if processors decide to pass the costs along.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has just released a PQA/HACCP video which explains the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) management system and how it affects the packing industry. It also explains how HACCP will affect the producers who are supplying the packing industry with product.

The video outlines the 10 Good Production Practices in the PQA (Pork Quality Assurance) program, which is a HACCP-like program for pork producers, explains Paul Sundberg, DVM, NPPC's director of Veterinary Issues.

The 20-minute PQA/HACCP video is available through the NPPC at a cost of $15. For additional information about the PQA program or to order the video, call the NPPC at 515/223-2600 or fax at 515/223-2646.