Last week started out in Kansas City before moving on to Chicago to a truly excellent conference organized by the North American Meat Processors Association.

Officially titled “Prevention of E. coli For Further Processors,” the conference was co-sponsored by a dozen or so meat organizations in North America. As best as I could tell, the room was filled with folks who probably have their hands on what happens to a very large percentage of the trim, subprimals and ground beef produced in the USA.

It is the beef that requires “further processing” where the meat industry focus has been on combatting E. coli O157:H7 for almost two decades now. Prime cuts don’t require any “further processing,” they just go directly to Ruth’s, Morton’s and the like.

When you are dealing in trim, subprimals, and especially when you are grinding beef, you worry about E. coli O157:H7.   It is head-spinning to hear how many pre-harvest and post harvest intervention methods are out there to reduce E coli contamination on beef.  (Harvest means slaughter.)

The two-day conference was kind of a graduate school in what beef processors have to do to control the potentially deadly pathogen.   Indeed, about half the speakers were top professors from top Ag universities.

I was finding myself learning all kinds of things, like did you know that the N60 sampling,  required by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), has a predictive rate of 45 percent?   Flipping a coin is 50 percent.

To be fair to FSIS, the agency says N60 “provides 95 percent confidence that no more than 5 percent of food pieces the size of each ‘n’ in the entire lot are contaminated.”

Since we often find ourselves trying to figure out what the government means by the language it uses in its official correspondence with beef processors, it was good to hear that we are not alone.   

One presentation, that I cannot do justice to here, showed how FSIS uses favorite twisted phrasing in writing companies about audit findings. It somehow made me feel better that I am not the only one who frequently finds “government speak” maddening. 

E. coli O157:H7, as measured by recalls and outbreaks, is running at low levels.  Low enough that the beef industry scored some points with Healthy People 2010, a program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for its relatively low level.

We also learned from Kristina Butts, legislative affairs executive for the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, that the next big arena for food safety in Washington D.C. is going to be the farm bill.

“Food safety always finds its way in,” she said.  Butts also said it may take the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the next five years to implement all the regulations authorized by the new food safety law signed by the President last Jan. 4.

Lots of news made during this conference.   Some we will have to follow up on.  For example, retail meat counters that grind their own beef are soon going to be required to keep logs.

Then, wouldn’t you know it, an hour after this was all over ,Cincinnati’s J.B. Meats recalled 72,800 pounds of beef associated with E coli illnesses.  I went looking around the ballroom for someone to comment, but the beef experts were already across the street getting their airplanes at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

And then so was I.

Editor’s Note: The explanation of what “95 percent confidence” means was improved since this was first published.