(This May 16, 2014, blog post by Brian Ronholm, Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety, Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, is reposted here with permission.)

As grilling season heats up, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is enhancing our food safety testing program for ground beef. While FSIS has a range of safeguards to reduce E. coli in ground beef, this summer we will begin new testing to improve the safeguards against Salmonella as well. Salmonella is commonly found in ground beef and, in fact, caused an illness outbreak in January 2013 in six states. Salmonella is an especially difficult bacteria for food safety experts to address because it is so prevalent in almost all food sources.

Recognizing that we need more information about the prevalence of Salmonella in ground beef to better prevent foodborne illness, FSIS is “super-sizing” our pathogen testing program to include Salmonella every time our laboratories test for E. coli in samples of ground beef and ground beef sources. Because the samples taken for E. coli testing are much larger than those we have taken in the past for Salmonella, there is higher likelihood that we will be able to detect the bacteria if it is present.

Once FSIS has collected enough data about the prevalence of Salmonella in ground beef, we will create a new standard to encourage ground beef processors to strengthen their Salmonella controls, resulting in safer products and fewer foodborne illnesses. The data collection process will take some time, but it is critical that the new standard is supported by meaningful data. Of course, we will continue to analyze any positive samples for multi-drug resistance and specific serotypes to determine whether they are contributing to human illnesses.

Salmonella is the most urgent issue facing FSIS when it comes to protecting consumers and it is why we developed our Salmonella Action Plan. This plan details our strategy for reducing the number of Salmonella-related illnesses, and this enhancement to our sampling and testing programs is part of that comprehensive effort. Another part of our war on Salmonella is encouraging consumers to take steps to protect themselves from illnesses, including cooking all ground beef to 160 degrees F (poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees F). For more information on ways to keep your family Salmonella-free this summer, we invite you to check out FoodSafety.gov or AskKaren.gov before your next cookout.

  • John Munsell

    It makes economic and public health sense for FSIS to test for more than one bacteria on samples of ground beef and ground beef sources. Mr. Ronholm, I hope that FSIS is not artificially limiting this super sizing effort to merely determining the true prevalence (incidence) of Salmonella. Will the test results lead to FSIS pressuring the SOURCE of contamination to implement meaningful corrective actions to prevent recurrences? Admittedly, you mentioned above that armed with these results, FSIS “will create a new standard to encourage ground beef processors to strengthen their salmonella controls”. Most people think of the grinding plant (your so-called “ground beef processors”) as the ORIGIN of E.coli & Salmonella, but you & I know better. On February 24, 2006, your own Dr. Daniel Engeljohn stated in Atlanta, GA “And then more importantly with the ground products — because the highest prevalence or at least the percent positives that we’re finding is in the ground products. And it’s the SOURCE (emphasis added) materials that we want to focus on first, and then we’ll focus on those ground products”.
    Mr. Ronholm, my concern is that FSIS will use your lab test results primarily to prove to grinders that their raw materials are frequently previously contaminated (already a well-known fact), and grinders will be exclusively accountable to (1) detect and (2) remove the pathogens, two tasks which neither FSIS nor the source originating slaughter plants could accomplish. Meanwhile, FSIS wil continue to deregulate the large source slaughter plants, turning a blind eye to ongoing sanitation problems at the SOURCE kill floor. Yes, I am asking you if FSIS has any intentions whatsoever to perform tracebacks to the SOURCE of contamination when your super-sized testing reveals the presence of pathogens. Or, will FSIS merely continue its historical reluctance to trace back to the source, which “should” logically be accompanied by the agency’s super-sized willinginess to force the source to implement corrective actions? I’d appreciate your clarifying these issues as FSIS touts its aggressive super-sizing efforts. John Munsell