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The Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point system used today by meat and poultry processors, as regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, is much different than the version of HACCP as developed by Pillsbury and NASA in the late 1960s. The latter was a true success story. Food produced under HACCP for the Apollo moon landing program was probably some of the safest ever produced by humans.
Almost immediately after the unveiling of HACCP, the Food and Drug Administration required HACCP for canning of mushrooms and low-acid foods to deal with microbiological food safety problems in those items. In addition, two National Research Council reports in 1985 endorsed the use of HACCP systems in meat and poultry processing. The Food Safety and Inspection Service published the Pathogen Reduction: HACCP Systems Final Rule in 1996 to implement HACCP in establishments under Food Safety and Inspection Service inspection.
Differences between HACCP systems
HACCP systems required some adjustment to be applied to raw meat processing, plus some of the operational definitions changed between the early years of HACCP and the final application in poultry plants. The accompanying table shows some of the differences between the HACCP systems used by NASA and Food Safety and Inspection Service.
One obvious difference is the scale of production, with food for astronauts produced in extremely low total amounts versus meat and poultry processed for consumers. A typical chicken processing plant generates several hundred tons of raw chicken in a single shift during one workday, with hundreds of meat and poultry plants operating in the U.S. under the Food Safety and Inspection Service version of HACCP.
No matter how expensive, the cost of making food for astronauts was always a tiny part of the accounting for space missions. The cost of delivery to earth orbit is usually estimated at about $10,000 per pound, so the scale cannot be compared to the total cost of delivering a pound of chicken meat to a supermarket, where the cost of processing can be a significant part of the profit margin for a poultry company.
A more important difference is in the form of the final product, where space food is ready to eat and safe after minimum preparation such as warming in a microwave oven. Raw poultry, on the other hand, is ready to cook, not sterile, and cannot be assumed to be free of bacterial pathogens. The final kill step occurs after the processing plant at the institutional or home kitchen where the meat is cooked. Even though astronaut ice cream and raw chicken are both produced under HACCP systems, NASA will not be sending raw meat up to the International Space Station.
The critical control point concept has changed considerably since the development of HACCP. Early documents discuss the elimination and control of hazards, but in the late 1980s the definition for a critical control point given by the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods was changed to include "or reduce to an acceptable level." Previously, the commission had opposed the setting of microbiological standards for raw meat and poultry because of the lack of a true kill step in processing. Some microbiologists pointed out the absurdity of defining an acceptable level of pathogens. The initial Salmonella standard in the PR/HACCP Final Rule, for example, was that the average prevalence for the industry would be at an acceptable level 80 percent of the time. HACCP is not what it used to be.
The control methods have changed as well. NASA HACCP depended on cooking as a final control step, whereas Food Safety and Inspection Service requires use of antimicrobial GRAS chemicals to injure bacteria and use of visual inspection to avoid fecal contamination. An early National Research Council recommendation was to develop sampling plans to assure that the numbers of Salmonella cells present in food are below a statistically defined level of minimum hazard to the consumer. The Salmonella standard for meat and poultry is based instead on the percentage of carcasses that test positive for at least one viable cell. As discussed in previous articles in this series, the percentage of Salmonella-positive HACCP samples is poorly correlated with human illnesses.
The last column in the table points out that the feedback loop for microbiological controls has changed. Instead of instant information via instruments that measure variables such as temperature, pressure, time and acidity, Food Safety and Inspection Service HACCP ultimately depends on microbiological testing that takes days before a processing plant can know whether Salmonella specifications are being met.
In these and other ways, the current version of HACCP is very different from the HACCP that was developed for the space program. The failure of meat and poultry HACCP to reduce the rate of human salmonellosis indicates that the two different systems do not produce the same results.
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The differences between NASA and Food Safety and Inspection Service approaches to HACCP beg the question: Can raw meat and poultry be made as safe as cooked, ready-to-eat food?
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