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.