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How your Christmas ham makes it from the farm to your table

The Christmas ham is a tradition that stretches back centuries — in fact, enjoying a ham dinner on wintry special occasions has been popular in Europe before Christmas was even celebrated there. And while any cook — from the pro to the at-home kitchen wizard — needs to keep food safety in mind while cooking a holiday ham, food safety begins way before the pig reaches the plate.

From the farm gate…

Swine producers are engaged in a constant battle against all kinds of nasty stuff, like pathogenic bacteria and viruses. The plan of attack against these threats is called biosecurity, a set of best practices for ensuring a clean production environment, which keeps both people and animals healthy.

How is biosecurity implemented? In many, many ways. Anything that helps prevent the spread of biohazards counts. It covers everything from specific cleaning techniques, to documentation protocols, to personal protective equipment for farm personnel.

A keystone of many biosecurity programs is the cleaning and disinfecting process, a two-step procedure that involves using cleaners to remove dirt, dust, mud and other gunk from a surface, and then allowing a disinfectant to wipe out any lingering microbes. Together, they make it possible to help keep pigs free of illnesses like the deadly porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv).

Another important production step is to vaccinate pigs against a number of health concerns. One tough part: needles that break off in a pig’s body and remain there as the animal grows.

A decade ago, the National Pork Council ran a campaign called “One is too many” to raise awareness of needle breakage. In a list of best practices, the council encouraged producers to use detectable needles. During processing, meat is scanned through a metal detector, but there’s a low rate of detection for basic needles. Detectable needles are manufactured with an alloy that’s not only easily detected, but reduces the risk of breakage, protecting ham-enjoyers from nasty metal surprises in their Christmas dinners.

…to dinner plate

In recent years, regulations have been passed to step up the food safety game of producers at the processing and packaging stages. The United States’ Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is one piece of legislation that has made a big splash in the food industry — even outside of the country.

In general, the act shifted the focus from responding to food safety crises to preventing them from happening in the first place. This involves requiring a number of new documentation and preventive control measures being implemented in facilities. Processers now must identify potential cross-contamination hazard areas in their plants, create control plans for these potential hazards and develop recall plans in the event of detected issues.

When it comes to ham and pork, recalls are most common with ready-to-eat products, usually due to the bacteria Listeria. Scientifically testing for this and other bacteria is one way processors keep consumers safe, and maintain the protocols that allow them to comply with FSMA regulations. Environmental monitoring with ATP, allergen or protein testing is another way. Each of these tests detects residues that indicate a surface was not thoroughly cleaned enough.

Bon appétit

Don’t just thank the chef at your next holiday dinner — think about the farmers, processors, packagers and other ham heroes who devoted their efforts to providing the main dish. When you sit down and sink your fork into that warm, hammy goodness, take a minute to think about the journey your delectable dinner has undergone to reach you as wholesome and safe-to-eat as can be, and let that information allow you to enjoy your food all the more.

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