The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service should re-evaluate its E. coli testing for boxed beef that may be processed into ground beef of tenderized-steaks, according to a new USDA Inspector General report.
The recommendation comes in response to an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audit — which looked at 11 processing facilities in five states and analyzed data from 1,750 establishments — that found oftentimes inspectors are not sampling boxed beef product that ultimately becomes ground beef or mechanically-tenderized steaks and sometimes plants do not have adequate trace back records. As OIG notes in the 46-page report issued on Friday, “Such information is crucial during a recall.”
And there have been major recalls in the past few years involving these types of products. In 2008, FSIS recalled 1.3 million pounds of boxed beef after 35 people became ill. In 2009, 380, 000 pounds of boxed beef — that was not eligible for FSIS E. coli testing — was recalled in connection to a 10-state outbreak involving 24 illnesses. In September 2012, FSIS issued a public health alert regarding E. coli contaminated whole muscle boxed beef cuts that were recalled in Canada because they had been used to produce raw ground beef in the United States, according to OIG.
During their most recent audit, OIG’s team realized that there was a potential for downstream processors to grind untested boxed beef products and so they tried to figure out if the FSIS’ Public Health Information System, a web-based data and task management platform, was accounting for these untested products.
The problem, as OIG explains it, is that large slaughter facilities package cuts like chucks, rounds and sirloins into vacuum sealed bags that are shipped in large boxes, often weighing upwards of 60 pounds each. Slaughter plants may have assumed these products were intended for intact products, so they were not subject to FSIS’ E. coli testing, but a downstream processor may decide to grind the meat or use the cuts for mechanically-tenderized steaks, a process that can potentially introduce pathogens into the center of meat products that consumers might assume are intact.
“Although FSIS maintains an extensive ground beef sampling program for those Federally inspected downstream processors, the untested boxed beef and its trim might not be adequately considered for sampling prior to grinding,” according to OIG. “Studies have shown that sampling trim has a potential higher probability of finding E. coli than sampling ground beef.”
OIG noted that while the boxed beef is likely not tested for E. coli, it still bears the USDA mark of inspection, so establishments may “assume that it is pathogen free and, therefore, safe for grinding.”
The report said FSIS officials told OIG auditors that they intended for boxed beef headed for grinding to be tested, but according to the report “they did not adequately convey their intentions to FSIS inspection personnel in the plants.” The result, according to OIG, is that “the public has less assurance that ground beef is not contaminated.”
During the audit, OIG found that four out of the five plants they visited were not testing boxed beef intended for grinding. They also traced box beef back from two downstream processors to a common slaughter plant and found that FSIS was not sampling the product. FSIS recommends that processors test incoming beef but OIG found that 9 of the 11 plants they visited were not following that advice. When it came to mechanically-tenderized meat products, OIG found that none of the five downstream processors they visited used product that had been tested for E. coli by FSIS. (Current FSIS policy does not require special testing for mechanically-tenderized products.)
The report also details enormous data problems with FSIS’ new PHIS system. OIG reported that in the recent transition to the new data system there were huge data migration problems that caused FSIS to not correctly sample or test ground beef and ground beef components.
At one plant, FSIS did not take any E. coli samples due to a PHIS profile error. “As a result, FSIS inspectors did not receive any notifications form the system directing them to pull any E. coli samples for about 50 million pounds of ground beef that was produced over about five months. At another plant, which was simply identified as one of the top 10 slaughter establishments in the United States, FSIS inspectors didn’t sample “other ground beef components” for more than four years, which meant another more than 50 million pounds of product were not tested under the “appropriate E. coli sampling program.”
The report makes a number of recommendations for FSIS take additional steps to ensure any boxed beef headed for grinding is eligible for FSIS E. coli testing and FSIS agreed with all of the recommendations. OIG said the agency should include more information in PHIS so that inspectors know when to test boxed beef. One of the problems, however, as FSIS has noted, is that a plant’s decision to grind boxed beef is not something FSIS is likely to be aware of ahead of time.
“The OIG report confirmed our suspicions on a number of counts,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch. “There needs to be clear instructions to inspection personnel as to when sampling needs to be conducted. Finally, there needs to be a top-to-bottom audit of the Public Health Information System that is proving to be a detriment to the agency. It is definitely not living up to the hype that the agency once touted.”
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a longtime advocate for stronger food safety regulations, said the audit identified “numerous shortcomings that directly affect the public.” DeLauro said she found it “staggering” that OIG identified such a high rate of inaccuracy for PHIS. “Data errors that threaten the health of Americans are unacceptable and we clearly must do better by American families.”
Both Corbo and DeLauro said that the report further highlights the need to labeling of mechanically-tenderized beef products. A draft rule on such a label has been under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget since September.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said on Monday she hopes the OIG report “will encourage OMB to finalize their rule to label mechanically tenderized beef.”
“Currently, customers are largely unaware that this risk exists, and many do not routinely cook beef cuts, such as steaks, well enough to eliminate pathogens, such as E. coli that might be embedded in the meat due to the mechanical tenderizing,” said Gillibrand, in a statement emailed to Food Safety News. “I firmly believe prompt action is required in order to protect the health of American consumers from serious foodborne illness.”
According to the report, FSIS is “near completion” on a non-intact beef risk assessment that could inform future food safety policies for mechanically-tenderized products.
To view all of OIG’s findings and recommendations, see the full report here.
This story has been updated with Sen. Gillbrand’s comment.© Food Safety News