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USDA Inspector General Questions E. coli Testing

U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong questioned the validity of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) E. coli O157:H7 sampling program, raising questions about meat safety at a time when Congress is considering making cuts to the FSIS inspection budget.

In testimony before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday, General Fong told lawmakers her office completed an audit to assess FSIS’ sampling program for beef trim–currently inspectors take 60 samples from large lots of beef trim to test for E. coli O157:H7– and determined the current method “does not yield a statistical precision that is reasonable for food safety.” 

“Although 60 samples may be adequate to detect widespread contamination, more are needed when E. coli is less prevalent,” said Fong in her remarks. “FSIS current sampling methodology results in detection of E. coli less than half the time when it is present in 1 percent of a beef trim lot. Accordingly, we recommended that the agency place its testing process on sounder statistical ground by redesigning its sampling methodology to account for varying levels of contamination.”

Fong noted that FSIS “generally agreed” with her office’s findings and recommendations.

Washington, DC-based consumer group Food and Water Watch praised the IG report.

“We urge FSIS to work quickly to develop a comprehensive sampling and testing program for E. coli that will make food safer for consumers,” said Wenonah Hauter in a statement Wednesday, adding that FWW would like to see the agency:

“(1) Work to identify and remove all products produced during the same production shift as contaminated product through traceback and traceforward investigations of the entire production chain.

(2) Adopt measures to capture information about the suppliers for all positive test results, including industry-sampling programs. FSIS should conduct follow-up investigations and, when necessary, increase scrutiny at supplying slaughter plants.

(3) Identify research necessary to substantiate sampling theories it believes would improve its ability to protect public health.”

Fong said her office had also begun a review of FSIS E. coli testing protocols to ensure that beef trim is “effectively collected and analyzed.”

“Together, our beef trim sampling and testing audits should help bolster public confidence that FSIS tests are accurately identifying E. coli and ultimately preventing contaminated meat from being distributed and consumed,” said Fong.

General Fong’s prepared statement can be found here.

© Food Safety News
  • jmunsell

    One speaker at the “Prevention of E.coli 0157:H7 Conference for Beef further Processors” in Chicago on Sept 16 & 17, 2008, stated “N-60 testing on 10,000 lb lots is statistically irrelevant”. I’ve heard no rebuttal.
    We’ve been told, and it is true, that e.coli typically occurs at such a small incidence, that it is difficult to detect in testing. Phyllis Fong is right, in that IF E.coli were present in much greater numbers, that the agency’s N-60 testing would more successfully detect the bacterium’s presence.
    When I first heard the phrase “You can’t test your way to safe meat”, I disagreed. I now agree. Testing, in SOME cases, will reveal the presence of pathogens. Testing is but an indicator, revealing the presence of deadly bacteria, but not in all cases. So, if we want safer meat, our primary focus should be on building safety into each step of the kill floor operation. Then, subsequent testing will reveal (or validate) the efficacy of each step of kill floor operations. Please note #2 of F&WW’s statement above, which states “….when necessary, increase scrutiny at supplier slaughter plants”. F&WW is eminently correct on this suggestion. Why? Most people do not know that E.coli & Salmonella are “Enteric” bacteria, which by definition means they originate from within animals’ intestines, and by extension, proliferate on manure-covered hides. Where do we find intestines and manure-covered hides? Well, not at your local Perkins or Safeway. But, we do find them at slaughter plants.
    If the day ever comes when USDA/FSIS decides to focus its microbial testing and enforcement actions at the SOURCE slaughter plants, rather than at downstream destination facilities, only then will public health and food safety improve.
    However, the question still remains regarding the efficacy of testing [alone] to improve food safety. Frankly, and you won’t hear USDA/FSIS state this, that while testing does have value, it circumvents its potential value if the agency and the noncompliant slaughter establishments do not require/implement meaningful corrective actions, subsequent to adverse lab positives, to prevent recurrences. Let’s be honest here: if testing at a slaughter establishment produces multiple confirmed positives and/or presumptive positives, and the source originating slaughter plants does not implement meaningful corrective actions to prevent occurrences, the potential benefit of testing is adroitly avoided in the absence of meaningful corrective actions.
    Our battle cry should not simply be “TEST MORE”. Instead, our battle cry must be to mandate corrective actions when adverse lab positives are detected. USDA/FSIS aggressively disagrees. Why? Because the agency is loath to implement meaningful enforcement actions against the huge, multinational meat behemoths. The agency is paralyzed with fear of potential litigation from the industry’s biggest players. So, the agency allows the biggest players to police themselves, while the agency unleashes its full fury against victimized downstream establishments which merely further process meat purchased from its source slaughter providers. We should not be the least surprised by this spate of ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls.
    Please remember: microbial testing is but one step in the production of safe food. Adverse test results must lead to corrective actions, which USDA does not require. Therefore, E.coli outbreaks and recalls are virtually guaranteed, and we’d better get used to them, unless USDA’s attitude changes dramatically.
    John Munsell

  • Linda Lewis

    Now, if only USDA would conduct a rational sampling strategy for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“Mad Cow”).

  • John Munsell

    One speaker at the “Prevention of E.coli 0157:H7 Conference for Beef further Processors” in Chicago on Sept 16 & 17, 2008, stated “N-60 testing on 10,000 lb lots is statistically irrelevant”. I’ve heard no rebuttal.
    We’ve been told, and it is true, that e.coli typically occurs at such a small incidence, that it is difficult to detect in testing. Phyllis Fong is right, in that IF E.coli were present in much greater numbers, that the agency’s N-60 testing would more successfully detect the bacterium’s presence.
    When I first heard the phrase “You can’t test your way to safe meat”, I disagreed. I now agree. Testing, in SOME cases, will reveal the presence of pathogens. Testing is but an indicator, revealing the presence of deadly bacteria, but not in all cases. So, if we want safer meat, our primary focus should be on building safety into each step of the kill floor operation. Then, subsequent testing will reveal (or validate) the efficacy of each step of kill floor operations. Please note #2 of F&WW’s statement above, which states “….when necessary, increase scrutiny at supplier slaughter plants”. F&WW is eminently correct on this suggestion. Why? Most people do not know that E.coli & Salmonella are “Enteric” bacteria, which by definition means they originate from within animals’ intestines, and by extension, proliferate on manure-covered hides. Where do we find intestines and manure-covered hides? Well, not at your local Perkins or Safeway. But, we do find them at slaughter plants.
    If the day ever comes when USDA/FSIS decides to focus its microbial testing and enforcement actions at the SOURCE slaughter plants, rather than at downstream destination facilities, only then will public health and food safety improve.
    However, the question still remains regarding the efficacy of testing [alone] to improve food safety. Frankly, and you won’t hear USDA/FSIS state this, that while testing does have value, it circumvents its potential value if the agency and the noncompliant slaughter establishments do not require/implement meaningful corrective actions, subsequent to adverse lab positives, to prevent recurrences. Let’s be honest here: if testing at a slaughter establishment produces multiple confirmed positives and/or presumptive positives, and the source originating slaughter plants does not implement meaningful corrective actions to prevent occurrences, the potential benefit of testing is adroitly avoided in the absence of meaningful corrective actions.
    Our battle cry should not simply be “TEST MORE”. Instead, our battle cry must be to mandate corrective actions when adverse lab positives are detected. USDA/FSIS aggressively disagrees. Why? Because the agency is loath to implement meaningful enforcement actions against the huge, multinational meat behemoths. The agency is paralyzed with fear of potential litigation from the industry’s biggest players. So, the agency allows the biggest players to police themselves, while the agency unleashes its full fury against victimized downstream establishments which merely further process meat purchased from its source slaughter providers. We should not be the least surprised by this spate of ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls.
    Please remember: microbial testing is but one step in the production of safe food. Adverse test results must lead to corrective actions, which USDA does not require. Therefore, E.coli outbreaks and recalls are virtually guaranteed, and we’d better get used to them, unless USDA’s attitude changes dramatically.
    John Munsell

  • jmunsell

    This morning, March 7, an article appeared on Meatingplace which explains that the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCO) has authored new recommendations for sampling intact meat cuts, boneless trimmings, and frozen ground beef. Also, how to improve lotting protocol, as well as proper analysis of lab test results. The article also quotes Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, head of USDA/FSIS Meat Inspection, who is pleased with BIFSCO’s recommendations. Should make for good reading.
    John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    This morning, March 7, an article appeared on Meatingplace which explains that the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCO) has authored new recommendations for sampling intact meat cuts, boneless trimmings, and frozen ground beef. Also, how to improve lotting protocol, as well as proper analysis of lab test results. The article also quotes Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, head of USDA/FSIS Meat Inspection, who is pleased with BIFSCO’s recommendations. Should make for good reading.
    John Munsell