Over the past few months, we had numerous conversations with food safety and compliance professionals at the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) that were always insightful and interesting. I am thrilled to share with you an interview with Casey Lynn Gallimore, the Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at NAMI, we did last month.
About Casey Lynn Gallimore
Casey Lynn Gallimore serves as a Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at the North American Meat Institute where she provides expertise on a variety of topics including food safety, HACCP, audit compliance, regulatory issues, processing, and offal products.
Prior to joining the Meat Institute, Gallimore spent seven years in the food industry in food safety, quality assurance, and regulatory compliance roles. She has worked in FDA and USDA regulated facilities ranging from chocolate and ingredient manufacturing to portion cut steaks and market hog slaughter. Gallimore earned her Bachelor of Science in Biology from Truman State University, with minors in Chemistry and Justice Systems.
Chainvu: Casey, as the Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), what does your role entail? What do you do every day?
Casey: My day is varied and depends on what's going on in the industry. Part of my job is to help our members understand the regulations that they're held to. They can call or email me with any questions about different regulations or policies. The majority of my time is spent handling and answering questions, and communicating with agencies like Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) with the USDA.
We also support our members because they're regulated by other agencies like the Agricultural Marketing Service for grading and other marketing claims, and the FDA for our plants that are dual jurisdiction or produce byproducts that are used in animal or pet feed. I'm starting to dive into some labor and employment issues as well. That's part of my job — supporting our members by keeping up to date on policy and regulation and then letting them know what they need to know.
We send out a lot of communications, including our weekly member newsletter and specific memos or bulletins, whenever something happens that we feel our members need to know about. We monitor what's going on in the industry, on the Hill, in technology, international trade, etc. and share this with our members so that they remain informed.
Once we've monitored what's going on in the meat and poultry industry and in the different agencies that regulate that industry, it's our responsibility at the Meat Institute to be our members' voice in Washington, DC. If FSIS puts forth a new proposed rule, changes a policy, or puts out an information request, it's my job to let members know what impact that may or may not have on the industry, and to gather input from our members and relay back to FSIS what the industry’s point of view is and whether or not we have suggested changes or things to consider.
That's most of it. That's why I say my tasks vary. One day I could be helping a member who has product stuck at the border in another country; another day I could be helping a member who just had a recall and is looking for opportunities to improve their process. I could be answering basic regulatory questions, or writing comments on a proposed rule. It just depends.
Chainvu: It sounds like a really awesome job. What do you enjoy most about your role?
Casey: Before I was at the Meat Institute, I was a member of the Meat Institute. I would go to events and listen to some smaller companies — not necessarily super small, but small enough that they didn't have the titans of industry in the Food Safety and Quality Assurance world at their companies. These companies didn't have big corporate structures.
I would hear their concerns and I wanted to help. Obviously, when I was working for another private company, that wasn't something that I could easily do. What attracted me to the Meat Institute the most was that I'd get to help people in this industry. That's the best part — helping people with problems. This is a really cool industry to be in. We're in the business of animal proteins, but it's definitely a people industry.
We're a little bit different than other manufacturing because, although we're trying to introduce technology, innovation, and robotics, we're a very people-oriented business. As much as we try with genetics, you can't make animals 100% the same. It's very reliant on manual labor, which means a lot of people are involved — a lot of really good, hard working, salt-of-the-earth type of people. I found that out when I started in this industry. Being able to represent and help them — it's a great feeling.
Chainvu: You just described some of the values of becoming a member. What other values would a new member have by joining?
Casey: There are a couple of things that stick out initially. In addition to the regulatory support that my department provides, we have a lot of experts on staff. We have a meat scientist — a resource if your company doesn't have one. She's well-connected, so if a member needs specialized assistance, she knows the people in the meat-science world that can help. We have a veterinarian on staff to help with live-animal questions. In our international affairs departments, we have people that have been working in the meat-trade business for 30 years, someone who's lived overseas on behalf of the USDA, and staff that travel the world trying to open trade barriers. I think a lot of value just comes from the staff that we have.
My boss wouldn't want to admit it, but he's one of the premiere food-safety lawyers in the industry. Everybody knows Mark Dopp. He and the other folks here have been doing this for a really long time. We have the connections, the knowledge, and a great staff. Even if we can't answer questions, part of our job is to stay connected and know the people that can. Sometimes it's hard for a company to keep track of who's at what position, at what agency, in which country — but that's our job on a day-to-day basis. Instead of a company having to look all that up, they just call us, and we get them connected or do it on their behalf.
Another benefit is anonymity. A lot of times, being in a highly regulated industry, a company may have a question or concern but is worried about bringing it up because they don't want to shine extra light on themselves. They can bring that issue to us. We can anonymously see if other companies are having the same issue, and then talk to the regulator or regulated industry. This way, the conversation is really just based on the problem, the facts, and what the issue is, and not the company or any relationships.
On the regulatory side, we have staff that you can contact pretty much any time of day. They're on-call if a company has issues outside of normal office hours. We have a legislative department that is our lobbying arm so we can gauge what the industry is thinking and then go to the Hill as an industry instead of going as individual companies. This wields a lot more power in Washington. If you can say that this is what the whole industry wants, that means a lot more than the words of an individual company. We have the numbers. This also allows a company to spend its resources and time in other ways.
These are the main things that I’m thinking of right now, although there are tons of other things we do. As an arm of the Institute, we have a research and education foundation involved in trying to identify and fulfill the research needs of the industry. We do a lot of promotional activities for industry products and try to dispel myths about meat and the meat industry. Also, if a company gets into a Public Relations issue, our communications department provides emergency support and crisis mitigation.
Chainvu: Awesome. That's certainly a lot of value there. Let's switch to food safety, which is one of the biggest concerns that we've seen in the meat and poultry processing industry. You have a lot of experience with quality assurance. In your experience, what scenarios hold the biggest potential for contamination? Where do most of the problems come from?
Casey: Historically, they've come from a couple of different places. For the most part, in the meat and poultry industry and in the food industry in general, the number one tricky food safety aspect is always going to be pathogens. You can't see them and they're all very different. Obviously, we're no stranger to E. coli or Listeria monocytogenes in the meat industry, and in my opinion, the meat industry has a really good track record for identifying the problem and using science to figure out how to address it.
With E. coli, there was a huge industry-wide effort. A lot of science is now out there that establishments can use to understand what they need to do in their process to keep E. coli at bay. Good handling practices with the meat and carcasses are a huge part of it and, in my opinion, it's one of the things we're the best at in the food industry — we really understand how to handle our products correctly to prevent issues, from cleaning and sanitation to designing our plants and equipment. Equipment design is very important concerning Listeria. Monitoring for it was an integral part of solving the Listeria crisis we had years ago. Luckily, you don't see a lot of recalls for Listeria in meat products anymore. Again, that was an industry-wide effort to identify where our weak spots were and how to address them.
On the horizon, we've got Salmonella. It's trickier than the previous two combined and very different. We know E. coli exists in the digestive tract, so if you get things that are normally in the digestive tract on other areas through poor sanitary dressing practices, then that's typically how you get E. coli. But Salmonella is very different. While E. coli is something that the animal has inside of its GI tract, Salmonella is bacteria the animal can contract. Salmonella can be inside the digestive tract, but an animal can also contract salmonellosis, an illness caused when Salmonella infects the animal's lymphatic system.
Even if your plant has really effective sanitary dressing practices and good interventions, if you have an animal that has contracted salmonellosis, there's still going to be Salmonella inside the animal. Salmonella is probably going to be our biggest hurdle over the next several years. We've got a lot of things in the works right now. There's a lot of research going on and a lot of talk. It's a focus topic for our upcoming food safety conference where we'll have some dedicated time for all the companies to come together and brainstorm.
Chainvu: You mentioned a lot of very good practices to prevent food safety incidents, like the redesigning of the factory layout and the sanitation practices. What are other measures the food industry can take as a whole and across the entire supply chain — including distributors, retailers, and of course, food processing companies — to increase food safety?
Casey: Across the entire supply chain, the quickest and easiest answer to that is handling, specifically temperature control, especially for meat and poultry. That's somewhere where we probably have some room to improve. I think the packers and processors really have that nailed down, but it's often during distribution and retail when things falter. Open retail cases make it a lot harder to keep the proper temperature to prevent growth.
Temperature control is definitely the easiest, quickest answer. Keep products below 40 degrees. I feel more comfortable if temperatures are below 35 degrees to account for fluctuation, but temperatures below 40 degrees will prevent pathogens from growing.
However, with Listeria, this is not helpful because it grows in cold environments. Listeria is predominantly something the processors handle. There really isn't much during distribution or retail, except in cases of poor handling, such as damage to packing.
Yes, temperature control is the easiest safety measure to take. It's also good to store meat, poultry, and other food products in clean, pest-controlled environments. These are industry-wide best practices — from the packer all the way down to the retailer.
Chainvu: Traceability, trackability, and provenance are huge topics that are bubbling up right now. Do you want to share your thoughts on these?
Casey: I don't mean to brag, but I feel like the meat industry is ahead of the game for a couple of reasons. Between E. coli and Listeria, we've had practice at recalls. That's no secret. Every recall is public. We've gotten really good at tracing products and segregating lots so that we truly understand which products need to be recalled and we're not doing wide, sweeping recalls unnecessarily.
This is why good traceability is something you'll see in the meat industry but may not see in other industries. We are required by regulation to have a recall program. I can't think of a meat company out there that's not testing that program on a regular basis, at least annually. Most of our members test their programs more frequently, by doing mock recalls and practicing their ability to trace the product backwards and forwards through the supply chain. So because we're pretty good at traceability and have already fought these battles, I think that we can help other industries.
Our challenge is that we often lose traceability once the product goes into food service and retail distribution. There are many reasons for this, but as a broader food industry, beyond just meat and poultry, we're going to have to come together and figure out a way to standardize — at least enough to where we can get a good system that's able to track product even further down the line.
Some retail and food service companies are awesome at tracking, others struggle, but they all have a lot to manage, like taking different industries' products and putting them in one place. Even if we, the meat industry, agree on how we want to trace our product through the system, the fresh produce industry may come up with a different way, and seafood may come up with another. All these products go to one place in the end, and the retail and food service folks have to deal with the fact that there are all these different ways of doing things. How are they supposed to make a unified system? It's a tricky problem but there are potential solutions. There are different barcoding systems, and a lot of the meat industry uses the GS1 standards, so I think there are opportunities.
I know everybody's talking about blockchain. There's absolutely an opportunity there, but if you don't have a traceability system now, you're probably not going to go from zero to blockchain because there are steps that you need to take to go in that direction. Blockchain is great technology, but if there's somebody out there that understands it 100%, I haven't met them yet. However, I do think it's going to be really cool to see how the industry uses it going forward because I think we will. We've got member companies that are interested in blockchain, and while there's some value there, the real value won't come until we can figure out how to get it all the way down to the retail package.
The technology itself is complicated. We have all the data, but who's going to hold the data? Where? These are really the conversations we get stuck in. What data do we actually need to have in the blockchain (because too much data makes it not useful anymore)? How do we standardize that data? Who's going to have control over it? This is where the conversations get tricky and we struggle. We have to address blockchain in a way where we have a specific question that we want to answer. That's how we'll succeed.
Another unique fact about traceability in our industry is that every meat and poultry facility has an establishment number assigned to them by the USDA and it is required by law to appear on all packages. At the end of the day, our traceability has been made very easy with that requirement. We have to trace because the consumer will have that information in their hands today and can know exactly where that product was made.
Chainvu: It's just hard to translate that from the consumer side into anything useful at this moment and time.
Casey: Absolutely. I think many consumers don't realize that this information is in their hands. They don't even know what it is. I have many friends who don't realize that meat and poultry products have unique identifying numbers on them. When I tell them, it's like a whole new world has opened up.
At the Meat Institute, we have an app called My Meat Up. It has a lot of information about different products and recipes, and has a connection to the USDA's look up for establishments. You can put the establishment number into the app and find out where your product came from, which is cool.
Chainvu: What do you see blockchains and smart sensors contributing to the food supply chain in the future?
Casey: Again, I think we'll need to have a question that we want answered. There's a lot of interest in somehow trying to use blockchain for live animal traceability, especially cattle. I don't know how familiar you are with cattle breeding, but there can be three, four, or five different people or places between when that animal is born and when they come to the packing plant for slaughter.
It's a very tricky supply chain on the cattle side. You may have someone that is breeding or ranging cattle. Their cattle may go to a sale barn, and from the sale barn to the feed yard, and from the feed yard to the plant — all on an individual animal basis. They're not necessarily selling a whole lot of cattle. They may be selling one animal. There's a lot of talk and interest in whether or not blockchain can help in that area.
I think the quickest and easiest answers that we're going to provide will be directly to consumers. Consumers want to know all kinds of things about their products. I see a lot of companies pricking their ears up and looking at what questions we can answer for our consumers with blockchain traceability on the package. Can we tell them about animal raising claims? Can we tell them about nutrition? What exactly are the questions our consumers have that we can answer because of blockchain?
Chainvu: That makes sense. Here's the last question — one I'm really excited about. Do you want to take a stab at what the food supply chain will look like in 10 years?
Casey: Oh good heavens. If I was going to be accurate at this, I'd probably have a different job and be making a zillion dollars. One thing that's interesting about the meat and poultry industry is we're gearing up and moving more towards vertical integration where companies raise the animal, slaughter the animal, process the products, and ship the products. I think this trend will continue where a company controls the entire supply chain, as much as possible — all the way from live animal to hot dog.
I also think we'll see an expansion of mail order. It's just exploding. This becomes tricky for meat and poultry, because we're heavily regulated when products cross state lines, and because of concerns over temperature control. If we can find some innovative ways to get better at delivering products to consumers' homes in a safe, temperature-controlled manner, then I think there will be a lot of interesting opportunities in this space. I know retail companies like Amazon are working on things like this already.
There's some really innovative stuff happening over in Asia, where they're merging concepts for the newer, tech savvy generations. They have an interesting type of storefront where everything has a scannable code on it. You can just scan with your smartphone and look up more information on all the products that you see in front of you. You can pick out all your products and eat some of them prepared by a chef right there for you. You can even continue shopping and get everything shipped home to you. In light of it taking off in Asia, it'll be interesting to see if this concept catches on in other countries. In some of the bigger cities in the United States, I can see it becoming popular.
But mainly for us, I see vertical integration continuing. It will be really interesting to see where we go. We have sort of a divide right now among consumers — most want convenience but some are more focused on where the product came from. I think that we're doing really amazing things in the meat and poultry industry to accommodate both types of consumer.
Here's how vertical integration comes into play: If you can, within your own supply chain, take a live animal all the way to a really convenient meat or poultry item for the consumer, then that makes traceability easier, profits better, and consumers happier because that's what they're telling us they want. On the other side, you've got this subset of consumers that has gone back to basics in a nostalgic kind of way. They want to see cooking done at home more.
I think there are some things we can do, and some things our members are already doing, to address the desire for convenience as well as for nostalgia. We all used to cook meals at home and eat around the table together. Some consumers want to go back to that and reestablish those connections. Food is very emotional for people, although sometimes we don't think about that. It's something that's really interesting about the meat and poultry industry and the food industry in general. It's hard for people to separate food from emotions and memories.
For example, when some people think of turkey, they think of the Thanksgiving turkeys they've shared with their families over the years. When they think of meatloaf, they think of the meatloaf that Grandma always made for them. We're very emotionally connected to our food and it means a lot to us. I think providing convenience while still keeping that emotional connection to food — that's where our members are going.
Chainvu: Casey, thank you so much for your insights and your time. I very much enjoyed talking with you and look forward, as a new NAMI member, to learn much more from you and your organization in the coming months and years.