October 24, 2014

Office of the Inspector General Praises USDA E. coli Sampling Procedure

The Office of the Inspector General has released a report of an investigation into the USDA E. coli sampling procedure on beef trim. Beef trim is the meat cut away from more desirable cuts such as prime rib and sirloin, and is used to make ground beef.

It is illegal to sell ground beef contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7 in this country. And the USDA is planning to start testing for six other Shiga-toxin producing E. coli bacteria in beef trim in June 2012.

This report is the second part of the government’s investigation into how the sampling procedure minimizes E. coli contamination.  The first report, issued in February 2011, investigated the testing methods used. In that report, the OIG stated that the government’s methods of sampling for E. coli 0157:H7 were not precise enough to ensure food safety and that FSIS should reevaluate its sampling procedure. This second report investigated the fieldwork at beef slaughter and processing plants.

The investigations were requested by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in 2009 as Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies. In response to the report, she said in a statement, “This report further questions the integrity of the N60 sampling program. Even a well-designed sampling program is only useful in protecting consumer health if it is performed accurately. Yet, the Inspector General’s report indicates this sampling program may be both inadequately and improperly performed.”

DeLauro added that meat inspections performed by states are a weakness in our food safety system, and the government needs to improve its response to “high event” production periods. In fact, one of the issues in the report was a visit to a state-inspected beef plant in Utah. Inspectors found “serious deficiencies in the plant’s sanitary dressing procedures.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) is now the chair of that committee. He did not comment on the report.

Investigators visited six beef slaughter plants and “found that industry was performing thousands of E. coli tests daily generally following FSIS’ recommended procedures. Overall, industry was taking appropriate steps to help ensure that U.S. beef is safe from E. coli contamination, recognizing that regardless of how stringently the industry tests for E. coli, there is always an inherent risk of its presence in slaughter plants.”

However, the report was not all glowing. The inspectors found several areas where FSIS and the beef industry could make improvements. The OIG stated that:

  • When plants receive multiple positive test results (“high event” periods), FSIS has “not issued detailed and sufficient guidance for defining industry’s plans and setting forth the agency’s expectations for how industry should react. Different plants have very different high event day plans with different critical elements.” The OIG mentioned an event in September 2011, when a plant shipped 80,000 pounds of beef after it received multiple positive E. coli tests during production.
  • FSIS should “shift more of its testing resources to sampling trim, instead of ground beef, for E. coli.” At this point, FSIS tests 12,300 pounds of raw ground beef, compared to 1,270 pounds of beef trim. But E. coli is more likely to be found in the trim than in the ground beef.
  • FSIS needs to improve consistency of sample collection. Some inspectors take samples that are too large, which “dilutes the ratio of surface to interior tissue.” E. coli is found on the surface of beef trim. FSIS has not adequately evaluated how inspectors perform their work.
  • In some cases, “FSIS’ sampling policies and procedures allowed plants to sidestep regulations to avoid receiving noncompliance records.”
  • FSIS needs to ensure that small plants, especially those regulated by state inspection agencies, are being correctly overseen, given the problems found at the facility in Utah.
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