Apr 8, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Consumer groups have contended that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigates less aggressively when it finds E coli O157:H7 in routine testing of ground beef than it does when an E coli outbreak is linked to contaminated meat. As a result, the groups argue, the agency misses a chance to prevent some illnesses.
In response to these concerns, the USDA recently announced plans to turn up the intensity of the investigations triggered by routine E coli findings. But it's unclear whether the plans will satisfy consumer advocates.
At a Washington meeting in March, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) described in detail a plan to speed up and expand efforts to find the original source of contamination and any other contaminated products when E coli turns up in routine ground beef testing. At the same time, the agency insisted it already traces contamination in such cases "to all possible sources."
Chris Waldrop, a Consumer Federation of America official who attended the meeting, said the plan presented at the meeting fell short. "It's a little bit of a jump but not a whole lot," he told CIDRAP News in an interview a few days after the meeting.
Two weeks after the FSIS meeting, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced a bill that would require the FSIS to trace tainted meat "back to the original source of contamination" and would improve testing at meat suppliers and processors in the case of an outbreak.
"Currently, contaminated meat products are only traced back to the packing plant or the butcher shop they came from," Tester said in a news release. "But dangerous food contamination often begins earlier in the supply chain—at the slaughterhouse, where meat sometimes comes into contact with animal hides or manure."
He said the legislation would help small meat processors, who "often get blamed for contamination that didn't begin with them." In writing the bill, he said, he worked closely with John Munsell of Miles City, Mont., a former meat plant owner.
The bill has drawn support from at least one food safety expert who previously served prominently at the USDA: Dr. Richard Raymond, who was under secretary for food safety from 2005 to 2008.
"It appears to me that this is legislation that not only will help further protect the public, but will also help protect the small meat processors of the country," Raymond wrote in a Mar 29 blog post on Meatingplace, a meat industry Web site. He referred to previous posts in which he asked "why FSIS only did tracebacks to the source when there was an outbreak, but not for positives on test samples for E coli O157:H7."
The FSIS has not taken a position on Tester's bill, an agency official told CIDRAP News today. But the agency disputed the assertion that it does not investigate fully when it finds E coli in routine testing of ground beef. At the same time, officials acknowledged that the investigative approaches differ.
"FSIS does not agree with the contention that we do not conduct a full traceback investigation for each O157 positive," said the official, who said agency policy required him to request anonymity. "We do a full traceback investigation. The depth of the investigation differs, especially when there are illnesses associated with a positive product."
Waldrop said the FSIS held the March meeting in response to the concern of the Safe Food Coalition, which includes the Consumer Federation of America, about the different levels of traceback investigation for routine positives versus outbreaks. "Our concern has been that those activities are not the same and that FSIS is missing an opportunity to prevent illnesses," he said.
At the meeting, Judy Riggins of the FSIS Office of Field Operations gave a lengthy description of the proposal to increase investigative efforts when there is a preliminary or "presumptive" finding of E coli in routine testing of ground beef or beef trim.
According to the meeting transcript, Riggins said most presumptive positives are confirmed, but confirmation takes about 48 hours. Under the proposed plan, FSIS officers will launch an investigation as soon as a presumptive positive is found, instead of waiting until it is confirmed, she said. An FSIS inspector will determine whether the source materials for the tainted meat came from one supplier or more than one and will report their initial findings within 48 hours, she explained.
"We intend to identify all affected product and the potential suppliers earlier in the process and to respond more rapidly to protect the public health," Riggins said.
If the tainted meat included materials from several suppliers, the FSIS will send inspectors to all of those suppliers to gather information, she said. She also listed numerous other steps that investigators will take under the new plan.
Munsell, who attended the meeting, said that starting investigations at the presumptive positive stage will save time. "That's a one- to two-day improvement over current policy," he commented.
Waldrop agreed that this will be a step in the right direction. But he said the consumer groups' biggest concern, and one not addressed in the FSIS plan, is that when the FSIS finds E coli in routine testing at a grinding facility, it doesn't test unopened packages of source material awaiting grinding there.
Felicia Nestor of Food and Water Watch pressed that question at the meeting. She said testing unopened packages of source material would help identify the source of the contamination if there are multiple suppliers and would also speed appropriate steps if there is only one supplier.
In response to Nestor's questions, Dr. Daniel Engeljohn of the FSIS acknowledged that the agency in its routine testing program does not currently test unopened packages of incoming source materials at "a further processor."
He said there are several reasons for that approach. One is that producers of ground beef are expected to have programs to verify that their incoming materials meet food safety standards. A second reason is that both FSIS and industry data would show that "the likelihood of finding a positive in that unopened trim is very, very low, even though it may be the source that contaminated the production lot."
In other comments at the meeeting, Engeljohn emphasized that the FSIS currently conducts a traceback every time it finds contaminated meat, not just when there is an outbreak.
"The issue is [that] the degree to which we do the traceback and investigate samples are different, but we today trace back in every situation where there's a positive," he said. "Downstream, we go as far as we can into the situation. . . . It is a difference in how we do it with an investigation related to illness. What we announced today is a substantive change to more thoroughly investigate traceback to the slaughter supplier more so than what we do today."
An FSIS official said today that the agency has not set a date for inaugurating the new traceback procedures, but the intention is to launch them "in the very near future."
Mar 10 FSIS meeting agenda and presentations
Transcript of Mar 10 FSIS meeting
Mar 24 press release about Sen. Tester's proposed Meat Safety and Accountability Act