Earlier this week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced she will introduce the E.coli Eradication Act, a bill that would mandate greater E. coli testing in ground beef processing, as part of her broader proposal to help fix the federal food safety system.
The bill would require ground beef processors to test meat for pathogenic E. coli before grinding it into ground beef–there is currently no federal law requiring companies to do so.
The American Meat Institute (AMI), a trade association representing the companies that process 95 percent of red meat and 70 percent of turkey in the U.S., offered detailed comments to Food Safety News in response to Gillibrand’s E. coli testing proposal.
“Each and every day that our businesses are open, we are focused on producing beef that is as safe as it possibly can be because this benefits our customers, our families and our businesses,” said J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of AMI.
“If we could eliminate E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef by passing a bill in Congress, we would have insisted that such legislation be enacted years ago,” said Boyle. “Unfortunately it is not that easy.”
Boyle believes there are limits to what increased testing can accomplish on the food safety front. “Companies producing ground beef use tests to demonstrate that their pathogen prevention programs are working effectively. A test cannot make beef safe, however,” said Boyle.
According to AMI, there are several reasons testing has its limits. To begin, a test result is only a sample, so even if a container of beef is sampled it does not reflect the safety of an entire container as sampling elsewhere in the same container could yield different results.
For example, the AMI explains, if a sample comes back negative for any harmful pathogens, that does not mean their entire product is clear of contamination.
“Negative tests are good news, but are not a guarantee by any means, because they only represent a sampling of the whole product,” said Boyle.
Though there has been increased public interest in ground beef testing, especially after the New York Times featured a front page expose on E. coli in the beef supply chain two weeks ago, it is unclear whether Gillibrand’s provision, or one like it, could gain any traction in Congress.
For full comments, see: AMI Statement October 14 (pdf).