AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The local foods movement is continuing to grow in the U.S., and consumers want to know more about where their food is coming from.

Auburn University researchers are beginning to address how to educate and train local and regional meat farmers on ways to ensure a more secure food chain.

Working with a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture for more than $4 million, the researchers are looking to bridge gaps between knowledge and practices in production and distribution of local foods.

Led by Christy Bratcher, an Auburn University College of Agriculture professor and director of the Foods Systems Institute, the research team is looking at ways to ensure meat is safe to eat, especially when it is produced by small production facilities.

Beginning in 2012, the project's main goal was to research farms where cattle were being raised for commercial harvests and for direct sales, more specifically looking at the prevalence of E. coli on the farms and in production facilities.

"We collected fecal samples and water samples from any streams or ponds that those animals had access to," Bratcher said. "We found higher levels of E. coli in water to which cattle had access, which wasn't a surprise."

E. Coli prevalence

The E. coli studied in this project do not typically harm cattle but may be pathogenic to humans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli is a type of bacteria that is typically found in the intestines of people and animals. Although usually harmless, some E. coli are pathogenic and can cause illness.

Bratcher, along with colleague Manpreet Singh of the University of Georgia, looked at the biggest problem in the local foods industry: making sure local producers kept their facilities sanitary.

"Small and very small facilities do not have as many resources, and, while there are definitely fairly inexpensive ways to assure a safe and wholesome product, many of the facilities have untrained employees who could use some extra training in processing practices and a clear understanding that their every activity in the processing facility has a potential to impact the safety of the product for the end consumer," Bratcher said.

During their research, they found small regional facilities had no detectable E. coli at the end of the harvest process. However, in small facilities they found some positive carcasses.

Eliminating the food risk

Bratcher hopes her research will help guarantee a healthy product and safer food supply for consumers, whether they are buying from a farmers market or a chain store.

She and her team have begun to create a program to assist local processors in order to reduce the amount of E. coli transferred to the beef they produce.

The team has presented a series of Alabama Cooperative Extension System talks to producers and packaging plants, which highlighted sanitary design.

Through her research, Bratcher also has partnered with Auburn University Lambert-Powell Meat Laboratory staff and Regional Extension Agent Alex Tigue to create a butchery school where producers can be trained on proper sanitary design in facilities and education for processing meat.

The goal is to implement the school in 2019.

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Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/