USDA vows to double inspections of Canadian meat

Nov 8, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Starting tomorrow, US inspection and testing of imported Canadian meat and poultry products will roughly double and will include a category of beef products that has not previously been subject to testing, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said today.

The USDA announced Nov 3 it would increase inspections and testing of Canadian products this week, after beef trim from an Alberta meat producer was implicated in an E coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to ground beef sold by Topps Meat Co. of Elizabeth, N.J. But in the initial announcement the agency gave few details about the testing plan.

The USDA released more information today in a letter from Dr. William James of the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The letter, published online by the FSIS, said the agency would:

  • Increase inspections of Canadian meat, poultry, and pasteurized egg products
  • Increase testing of raw ground beef for E coli O157:H7
  • Begin E coli testing of raw beef trim, boxed beef, and "subprimals" (smaller cuts of meat from the major carcass components, such as loin, chuck, and round) normally sent for grinding
  • Increase testing of ready-to-eat products for Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella

The increased inspections, ground beef testing for E coli, and testing of ready-to-eat products "will be at the rate of approximately double that of the past year for Canada," James's letter states.

"The measures are a reflection of our concern about the Canadian inspection system based on the audit findings of May 1–June 6, 2007, and the circumstances related to the unsafe practices employed by Rancher's Beef, Ltd.," the Balzac, Alta., packing plant whose products were linked to the contaminated Topps ground beef, James wrote.

The expanded program will continue while two USDA teams finishing inspecting the Rancher's Beef facility, seven other Canadian facilities that were flagged for problems in the last USDA audit, and some slaughter plants that are similar to the Alberta facility in their "start-up and operations," James wrote.

He said that product lots will be held at import houses until samples test negative for pathogens. If a sample tests positive, the lot it came from will be rejected. However, FSIS "will consider submitted alternatives to holding product at import houses pending test results," the letter says.

James also said the new precaution of testing beef trim, boxed beef, and subprimals normally destined for grinding will be permanent and will be extended to all exporting countries starting at the beginning of 2008.

Official defends FSIS record
In related news, the FSIS's handling of meat recalls was defended by USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond in testimony before a congressional committee yesterday. E coli contamination has prompted 19 meat recalls so far this year, compared with eight for all of last year. The Topps recall involved more than 21 million pounds of ground beef and forced the company out of business.

Raymond said the FSIS has adequate tools to ensure food safety and does not need legislation granting mandatory product recall authority, according to a CongressDaily report today. (In contrast, this week the Bush administration, in a new food protection plan prepared by the Food and Drug Administration, said the FDA needs the authority to compel food recalls.)

Testifying before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry, Raymond said, "We think our present system works well," and added that meat processors have always cooperated with the USDA on recalls, the report said.

Raymond acknowledged deep concern about the recent spate of foodborne disease outbreaks but said he had expanded the USDA's inspection and testing program to combat it, according to the story.

Policy change revealed
Raymond said the E coli outbreak traced to Topps Meat has prompted one particular change in the FSIS's policies, according to a report today by Meatingplace.com.

"In two recent cases FSIS acted upon epidemiological evidence that linked illness to opened, FSIS-inspected product found in consumers' freezers, where previously, we believed the agency needed a test result from an intact or unopened package because of the possibility of cross-contamination [from other foods]," he was quoted as saying.

Raymond also said he didn't believe "risk-based inspection" would have prevented the Topps outbreak, according to Meatingplace.com. Risk-based inspection is the name for a USDA proposal to focus more of its attention on meat and poultry plants that have weak safety records.

"I believe that we need to take additional time to strengthen our system and our data collection capabilities before moving forward" with risk-based inspection, Raymond was quoted as saying.

See also:

FSIS letter about increased testing of Canadian products
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/Canada_O157_Testing_Letter.pdf

Nov 5 CIDRAP News story "USDA to increase testing of Canadian meat"
http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/fs/food-disease/news/nov0507beef.html

Oct 29 CIDRAP News story "E coli in Topps beef traced to Canadian firm"
http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/fs/food-disease/news/oct2907beef.html

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