E coli in ground beef dropped in 2004, USDA says

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Mar 2, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – The percentage of tested ground beef samples that federal meat inspectors found to be contaminated with Escherichia coli O157:H7 declined in 2004 for the fourth year in a row.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that 0.17% (14 of 8,010) ground beef samples tested in 2004 contained the potentially deadly pathogen. That compared with 0.30% in 2003, 0.78% in 2004, 0.84% in 2001, and 0.86% in 2000.

USDA officials credited the continuing decline mainly to changes dating to 2002, when the agency required beef slaughter and grinding plants to review their food safety systems and take specific steps to control E coli O157:H7. The USDA action followed a massive ground beef recall by a plant in Greeley, Colo., in July 2002 and signs that E coli contamination in meat was more common than previously believed. Most beef plants have made major changes since 2002, the agency said.

"The reduction in positive E. coli O157:H7 regulatory samples demonstrates the continuing success of our agency's strong, science based policies aimed at reducing pathogens in America's meat, poultry, and egg products," Barbara Masters, acting administrator of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), said in a Feb 28 news release.

Meat recalls related to E coli have also declined, the FSIS said. There were six recalls in 2004, down from 12 in 2003 and 21 in 2002.

In 2004 the FSIS collected 7,683 ground beef samples from grinding plants, 311 from retail stores, and 16 from imported shipments, according to information on the FSIS Web site. All 14 of the contaminated samples were from grinding plants.

The FSIS has found no E coli in any ground beef samples from retail stores since December 2002, agency spokesman Steve Cohen told CIDRAP News. He said the agency does not test ground beef from retail stores that receive only "case ready" product and don't grind it themselves.

The decline in E coli in ground beef samples has been accompanied by signs of a decline in E coli infections in recent years. The nation had 2,409 reported cases in 2004 (through Dec 25), versus 2,558 cases in 2003 (through Dec 20), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data were reported in the Jan 7 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The FSIS says about 1,700 grinding plants produce ground beef under its inspection. Each month the agency randomly chooses plants for sample collection and testing.

See also:

Feb 28 FSIS news release on E coli sampling
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/NR_022805_01/index.asp

FSIS tables of results of ground beef testing for E coli from 1994 through 2004
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Science/ecoli_o157_summary_tables/index.asp

CDC report of notifiable diseases (including E coli) in Jan 7, 2005, MMWR
http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5351md.htm

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