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Sampling Report Praises Beef Industry & USDA

To steal a phrase from former President George W. Bush, USDA’s meat inspectors are “doing a heck of a job” knocking down E. coli at big beef plants.

With a little constructive criticism around that edges, that pretty much sums up the findings of the Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG’s) report into testing beef for E. coli O157:H7.

The latest 51-page report from the OIG is the second and final part of an investigation into USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS’s) N-60 sampling procedure.   Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-CT, who was then chair of the House Agriculture-FDA Appropriations Subcommittee, requested the investigation in 2009.

beeftrimtests-406.jpgDeLauro continues to serve on that powerful subcommittee, which is now chaired by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-GA.  He did not comment on the OIG report, she did.

“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,” DeLauro said.  “Yet, the Inspector General’s report indicates this sampling program may be both inadequately and improperly performed. Critically, it also highlights other weaknesses in our food safety system that need attention, such as meat inspections performed by states and the clear need for an improved response to ‘high event.'”

In its first report, issued in February 2011, the OIG said the current methods of sampling beef for E coli O157:H7 by FSIS were not precise enough for food safety purposes.   It called on FSIS to reevaluate N-60, as the sampling program is known.

In the second report, just released, the broad bright stokes amount to a very favorable review for FSIS.

“Based on our visits to six beef slaughter plants–directly responsible for processing about 17 percent of the U.S. beef supply–we found that industry was performing thousands of E. coli tests daily generally following FSIS’ recommended procedures,” the OIG report says.  “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.”

The OIG credits the big beef slaughtering plants with the “strong initiative” to take preemptive actions, including the willingness to destroy whole days worth of production in the name of safety when N-60 testing returns positive for E. coli.

“When positive tests were found, plants were conducting investigations to determine the cause and applied corrective action to present further occurrence of E. coli contamination,” the OIG  continues.

The OIG does make some recommendations, including:

– FSIS needs to be more explicit in telling beef plants how to better handle “high event” periods when multiple positive E. coli tests are being experienced.  

– FSIS should test more samples of beef trim for E. coli, allowing for fewer tests of ground beef.  (In 2011, about 12,300 ground beef samples were tested versus 1,270 beef trim samples.)

– FSIS must avoid overweight samples because they tax laboratory resources, N-60 samples are supposed to weigh 325 grams.  Only by being consistent can N-60 testing verify E. coli, preventing interventions.

The OIG investigation also included a visit to a state-inspected beef plant in Utah where inspectors found “serious deficiencies in the plant’s sanitary dressing procedures.”    

State plants account for only 1 percent of the U.S. beef supply.  The OIG report recommends stepped up oversight by FSIS of the state facilities.

The OIG and FSIS have agreed on the recommendations.

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