Sep 27, 2002 (CIDRAP News) Citing evidence of increased Escherichia coli O157:H7 on beef carcasses, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced this week that beef slaughter and grinding plants will be required to add safety steps aimed specifically at the pathogen.
The announcement by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) came in the wake of a recent US General Accounting Office (GAO) report that faulted the USDA's enforcement of safety rules in meat and poultry plants. The report said the agency has not been ensuring that plants' "hazard analysis/critical control point" (HACCP) plans meet federal standards.
E coli control measures
In the FSIS announcement, Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano said, "The scientific data show that E coli O157:H7 is more prevalent than previously estimated. These action steps move beyond detection of this hazard and on to preventing it."
A study by the Agricultural Research Service in 2000 found that 28% of animals presented for slaughter were infected with E coli O157:H7 and that 43% of beef carcasses were contaminated with it, according to the FSIS. In addition, the agency said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has increased its estimate of the illnesses caused by foodborne E coli O157:H7 to 62,000 per year, with 1,800 hospitalizations and 52 deaths.
The prevalence of E coli O157:H7 suggests "that the pathogen is a hazard reasonably likely to occur at all stages of handling raw beef products," the FSIS said. Therefore, plants must do a comprehensive reexamination of their HACCP systems and, unless they can show that E coli O157:H7 is not reasonably likely to occur, must include a step to eliminate or reduce the risk of its occurrence, officials said.
Grinding plants could meet this requirement simply by requiring that their suppliers include a step to eliminate E coli O157:H7, according to an FSIS background report. "However, FSIS recommends that grinders determine whether critical control points are necessary in their own operations," the report states. The effectiveness of antiE coli steps must be proved by USDA inspections, officials said.
The deadline for plants to finish reassessing their HACCP plans depends on plant size. Large plants will have 60 days from when the new requirements are published in the Federal Register; small plants will have 120 days, and very small plants, 180 days.
The FSIS also said it will eliminate the microbiological-testing exemption that some slaughter plants now enjoy. "All ground beef plants will become part of the FSIS random verification testing program," the agency said.
In a further step, FSIS is issuing revised guidelines that include a recommendation that grinders keep meat from different suppliers separate to prevent cross-contamination. Separation will also make it easier to trace the source of any E coli O157:H7 that turns up.
The American Meat Institute, which represents meat and poultry processors, said the FSIS plan may hurt the beef industry without making meat safer. "The unfortunate reality is that USDA's new regulations won't make E coli O157:H7 go away, but it may make some plants go away," AMI President J. Patrick Boyle said in a statement on the group's Web site.
Boyle said all beef processors already have safety steps in place to control E coli O157:H7 as part of their "Good Management Practices." Shifting these steps into HACCP plans will give the USDA more authority to shut plants down, he said.
He asserted that E coli O157:H7 is found in less than 1% of ground beef and that he has seen no data suggesting it is becoming more common. Thorough cooking is the only guaranteed way to eliminate the pathogen, he said, adding, "The goal of any food safety policy should not be to hit a target that is out of reach like producing ground beef that is 100% free of E coli O157:H7."
GAO criticizes USDA enforcement
The GAO report, released this month, says that consumers may be unnecessarily exposed to unsafe foods because the FSIS "is not ensuring that all plants' HACCP plans meet regulatory requirements." The report is based on an analysis of 1,180 noncompliance reports from 16 plants that had safety problems in 2001, along with files of enforcement cases.
Main findings of the GAO investigators:
- FSIS inspectors are not consistently spotting defects in HACCP plans.
- FSIS does not expect its inspectors to determine if HACCP plans are based on sound science, because inspectors lack the necessary expertise.
- Few plants that have serious safety problems have had their HACCP plans carefully reviewed by the FSIS.
- FSIS isn't consistently spotting repetitive HACCP violations, in part because it has not clearly defined the criteria for them.
- FSIS is giving plants too much time to correct safety violations.
The report says the USDA, after reviewing the draft version, agreed with the recommendations in it but felt that the report did not fully acknowledge the FSIS's progress on enforcement of regulatory requirements. Some USDA actions that are already under way "could go a long way toward addressing the problems we found," the report states.
USDA news release about steps to reduce E coli
FSIS background report
GAO report: "Meat and Poultry: Better USDA Oversight and Enforcement of Safety Rules Needed to Reduce Risk of Foodborne Illness"