The National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF), an interagency committee with outside experts, held a meeting Wednesday (via conference call) to discuss ground beef purchasing requirements for federal food and nutrition assistance programs — and unanimously accepted the group’s recommendations on safety questions raised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS).

AMS asked NACMCF three questions to help develop microbiological criteria, pathogen testing methodology, and sampling plans for the National School Lunch Program ground beef purchases for 2012-13:
1. AMS is considering elimination of the requirement to test for staphylococcus aureus from the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program and AMS asks NACMCF to provide considerations and scientific discussion regarding this action with respect to public health.

The committee concluded that the exclusion of S. aureus-specific testing will not negatively impact the safety or quality of ground beef in the National School Lunch Program and recommended that the “criterion be removed from the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program.”

2. Should AMS consider the use of alternative screening procedures beyond those stipulated in the FSIS Microbiology Laboratory Guidebook (MLG), and if so, would the AMS testing program results be comparable to FSIS’ verification testing programs, and therefore useful to FSIS? What should be considered in distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable alternative screening procedures? Is it appropriate to allow alternative sample preparation procedures (portion size, enrichment broth, portion to broth ratio, enrichment time and temperature) which differed from the MLG, or which differed by AMS designated laboratory?

The committee recommended that AMS consider using validated alternative screening methods to “reduce the level of false-positive results and allow for more rapid release of raw product.” They issued specific responses to each subsequent question, the answers to which can be read in full here.
3. AMS asks NACMCF to evaluate boneless beef and finished product compliance program lotting and frequency of testing for pathogens and indicators of process control for both raw ground beef to be cooked on-site at schools.

The committee recommended that AMS “maintain high standard supplier control, HACCP implementation, carcass testing, traceability, etc as in current program.” Adding, “With the exception of S. aureus testing, no changes to testing of indicator organisms are recommended at this time.” The committee also said that, regardless of sampling program, ongoing program review needed to be strengthened.

For a detailed justification for each recommendation, see the NACMCF draft response here.

The NACMCF, established in 1988, provides scientific advice on public health issues relative to the safety and wholesomeness of the U.S. food supply. The committee, chaired by Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, serves the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and Department of Defense’s Veterinary Service Activity.