Enhancing Meat Processing through University-led Microbial Analyses: Reflections from the Dominican Republic

By: Dr. Aliyar Fouladkhah, F2F/USAID Volunteer, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Tennessee State University

The two hour drive from Santo Domingo to Santiago gave a snapshot of the vibrant agricultural industries in the Dominican Republic. The road to Santiago is lined by farming fields with many road-side vendors selling fruits and vegetables. In addition to being the second largest city in DR and the fourth largest city in the Caribbean, Santiago is also home to several distinguished universities, including ISA University (Universidad ISA)—the host institution for this Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) assignment.

Upon arrival at ISA University, I had to opportunity to meet with department head of the food science program. The program currently is home to 8 lecturers/research advisers and approximately 275 students, around 10% of the population of the ISA University students. The timing of this F2F assignment was commendable since it was scheduled during the last two weeks prior to start of the semester. During this time, most faculty and research technicians were present on campus, allowing for many of them to attend the F2F training sessions. During my assignment, I also had the chance to visit the university’s 1) meat processing plant, 2) poultry primary processing facility, 3) fruit and vegetable processing area, and 4) the dairy processing plant. These visits afforded me the opportunity to engage and lead several trainings with faculty/technician working in each respective facility. After a few days on campus, I was requested by faculty to organize additional workshops on meat-borne pathogens and meat decontamination interventions as well as best practices and food safety management systems for meat processing.

During these workshops, a series of inoculation studies were discussed for the attendees, particularly for choosing surrogate, attenuated, or indicator non-pathogenic inoculum and for conduct of microbiological validation studies in the university. After the training sessions, there were additional discussions on the importance of validating existing antimicrobial interventions in the DR’s meat industry. There were also discussion of an existing thesis research project where the institution was trying to reduce the nitrate levels of fermented sausages by replacing some portion of the curing salts with natural and local ingredients such celery seed powder.

There were also discussion about a student-led project that was trying to compare the efficacy of chlorine dioxide and sodium hypochlorite. The research advisor expressed concern that so far they were not able to achieve the exact same concertation of the both chemicals, thus unable to compare the efficacy of the two. Rather than trying to achieve the exact same concertation for both chemicals, I recommended using each antimicrobial intervention at the highest level authorized by the regulatory agency and manufacturer, which would give an overview of maximum decontamination efficacy that, could be achieved for each antimicrobial. We concluded that further studies could be designed to test the antimicrobial effectiveness at lower concertation e.g. 75%, 50%, or 25% of the maximum concentration proposed by the manufacturer(s).

After these workshops and observation of their current practices, I developed the following recommendations to strengthen ISA University’s inoculation capabilities:

(1) Many of the practices in the regional meat industries are solely adopted from the United States, those are validated based on the regulatory requirements and processing conditions in the U.S. To assure such interventions are efficacious in DR, they would require microbiological validation studies using locally-available isolated organisms. Higher temperature, different altitude, and different processing practices could affect the efficacy of the antimicrobials that could be assessed and adjusted based on the knowledge gained during the workshops. In this way, practices such as adjusting the exposure time, method of application, and concentration of lactic acid for decontamination of meat carcasses from Shiga Toxin-producing Escherichia coli were discussed and recommended for the ISA University stakeholders.

(2) For the ongoing above-referenced research project, for reducing nitrate of fermented sausages, microbiological safety evaluation of the re-formulated product is a critical stage before adoption of the practice by the private industry, particularly multiplication and survival of spore-forming organisms such as Clostridium botulinum and Clostridium perfringens. Since handing such pathogens and preparation of spore-suspension for the needed inoculation study is currently unavailable in the university, it was recommended to conduct a microbiological study using Aerobic Plate Count as an indicator of microbial proliferation during the shelf-life and disseminating the results with caution as an exploratory experiment that requires further validation studies for control of the above-mentioned spore-forming organisms. Regulatory information on the reductions could also be useful for the stakeholders, knowing that 33%, and 50% reduction of nitrate could qualify a producer for claims of reduced-nitrate, and low-nitrate, respectively, that could assist a producers in better marketing the product in the island. 

(3) One major barrier for conducting inoculation studies is limited availability of functional autoclaves that could pose a bio-hazard risk in case of growing and purifying microbial inoculum. To assure validity of the work conducted in the food safety and food microbiology programs, it is also vital to develop a plan for conducting and documenting the calibration of pipettes and balances to assure accuracy of the measurements during handling of solid and liquid materials.

In summary, I am pleased by the progress and capacity building endeavors achieved during the two week assignment, and commend the enthusiasm, willingness to absorb new curricula, and professionalism of the faculty and staff in ISA University and Partners of the Americas’ Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) staff in Santo Domingo. I am particularly thankful of the technical translation, photos, and great conversations with Mr. Jose Almodovar and Mr. Rafael Marte (the two F2F field officers), and the orientation with Ms. Rosa Iris Almonte (F2F Country Director for the Dominican Republic). It is unequivocal for me that future of food security and public health in DR is even brighter with inspiring and career-oriented people like Rosa, Jose, and Rafael.

Thanks to the progress made by the previous volunteers, enthusiasm of the faculty, and progress made during current assignment, I believe the ISA University now has enhanced capability to conduct microbiological analyses directly to assist stakeholders meeting regional and international standards as well as to conduct culture-dependent inoculation studies. Certain improvements in existing practices and operations could also assure enhanced success of ISA faculty to continue their critical mission, in assisting stakeholders, training future food microbiologists, and assuring safety of the country by reducing public health burden associated with consumption of raw agricultural commodities.


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