The joint industry/government program to certify herds free from trichinae could improve pork's image. It also could prove to be a model for future pre-harvest meat safety programs.

A voluntary trichinae certification program is being billed the first step in formation of an on-farm Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)-like program for the pork industry.

The Trichinae Herd Certification Program will use farm inspections and slaughter testing to document that hog management practices are effectively reducing exposure to the trichinae organism. The project is a joint effort of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and several USDA agencies.

Reduce Pork Stigma In reducing the threat of the parasite, the trichinae certification program seeks to eliminate the long-standing stigma surrounding pork. The consumer perception that pork must be cooked well done to avoid trichinae worms still exists, says David Pyburn, DVM, director of veterinary science at NPPC.

In fact, trichinae infection in pork is virtually non-existent. Certification should ease domestic concerns and assure pork's safety to international customers, helping to lift artificial trade barriers. Exporter Premium Standard Farms (PSF) has tested more than 7 million carcasses for trichinae and has not found a single positive sample.

Ultimately, packers like PSF will expect producers to share responsibility for consumer food safety concerns. By taking the initiative, the pork industry has the chance to develop its own on-farm HACCP-like program, states Pyburn.

Trichinae certification likely will be followed by similar pork safety efforts for toxoplasma and other organisms, he says.

Long-term, all these pork safety efforts should help increase demand, says Pyburn.

Rolling Out The Program The pilot project for trichinae is slated to start this summer. The full certification program is to be rolled out by the end of 2001 and into 2002, he explains. It will take three to five years to change consumer attitudes into believing that pork is trichinae-safe.

Certification includes these four elements:

* Accredited veterinarians, trained in good production practices for trichinae, will work with producer clients to ensure that trichinae infection rates are minimized on their farms;

* An on-farm audit will document trichinae-free status. Periodic audits will be conducted to prove that good production practices for trichinae are being observed;

* A statistical sample of the herd will be tested regularly at slaughter using the ELISA (enzyme-linked immuno sorbant assay) or diaphragm digestion test to verify the absence of trichinae, and

* USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service veterinarians will conduct random spot audits to ensure completeness and credibility of certifications with trading partners.

In short, the audit gathers information about farm management, biosecurity, rodent control programs, general hygiene, feeding practices and feed storage to verify the production system is producing trichinae-safe pork.

The audit system also will be used in this summer's pilot program on participating farms in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota. Trichinae samples will be collected in the Farmland plant at Denison, IA, and the Swift plant at Worthington, MN.

The on-farm trichinae audit will assess whether the farm site has followed these good production practices:

1. All non-breeding hogs entering the site must come from a certified production site or be less than 5 weeks old;

2. Sources of feed or feed ingredients must meet good manufacturing practices or quality assurance standards recognized by the feed industry;

3. Feed preparation, storage and delivery must exclude contamination with rodent and wildlife carcasses;

4. Control of rodents and wildlife must show no signs of recent activity near pork production or feed preparation and storage areas;

5. Wildlife must not be intentionally fed to hogs, and hogs are not to have access to wildlife carcasses on site;

6. Avoid waste products containing meat in rations as they are potentially a major source of hog infection with trichinae. Feeding waste food to hogs requires a state license. Cooking time and temperature must meet state and federal regulations. Waste products must be properly stored to avoid contamination;

7. Disposal of dead animals from pens should be done quickly to prevent cannibalism. Dead animals should be promptly removed from the site to prevent attraction of wildlife and rodents;

8. Follow hygiene practices around hog barns to deter rodents and wildlife. Solid waste should be regularly removed from the buildings to prevent access by rodents. Spilled feed should be promptly removed; and

9. Records should be kept of animal movement to allow for traceback to the certified production site.

European countries and others spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually testing pigs individually for the trichinae parasite at slaughter. Ray Gamble, research leader at USDA's Agricultural Research Service, says the U.S. is virtually the only developed country that has chosen not to test for the parasite because of the extreme cost.

Processing Regulations The American approach relies on product processing regulations - federal standards for cooking, freezing, irradiating and curing, and advice to consumers on how to prepare meat products.

Because the U.S. doesn't conduct a rigorous testing program of hog carcasses at slaughter, pork exports are restricted in the European Union (EU) and Russia to only frozen pork or pork from tested carcasses.

"In the last 10 years, USDA has allowed us to do a targeted testing program (pooled digestion method used elsewhere) in about 10 U.S. pork plants where exported meat bound for the EU and Russia are certified free of trichinae," says Gamble.

Threat Disappeared In the '20s and '30s, a survey of cadavers documented that up to 20% of the U.S. population was infected with trichinae, says Gamble. However, with the advent of laws for cooking of waste products fed to hogs and vast improvements in farm management programs, the trichinae problem was virtually eliminated over the years.

"In the last 10 years, we have not found a single infected pig that would pose a public health risk," emphasizes Gamble.

Two ways certify freedom from infection: test every pig or certify management practices.

Most producers won't have difficulty adopting production practices to assure consumers at home and abroad that U.S. pork products are safe from trichinae, assures Gamble.