Report: Ground beef safety for fed programs needs hard science

Dec 13, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Stricter testing for ground beef bound for school lunches, emergency food banks, and other government programs isn't likely to boost safety, but a stronger scientific basis and other measures could, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC).

The review of safety requirements for federally distributed ground beef was prompted by media reports, including a December 2009 report in USA Today, that suggested that microbiological testing standards for government meat is less strict than those used for other big ground beef purchasers, such as fast food chains and corporations.

The USA Today report found differences in how often during each production run federal and commercial ground beef was sampled and how it was combined into a composite sample. It also suggested that big commercial ground beef purchasers had more stringent standards for detecting indicator pathogens that might point to more dangerous undetected pathogens such as Escherichia coli O157:H7.

Concerns raised in the stories, such as the risk of potentially contaminated ground beef served to vulnerable populations such as children and older people, caught the attention of a US Senator and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, which led to a review and inspector general office audit of the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service's (AMS's) ground beef purchase specifications.

Based on those reports, the AMS revised its ground beef safety standards in February 2010. After revising its purchase specifications at that time, the AMS asked the NRC, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), to evaluate them. The NAS committee, led by Dr Gary Acuff from Texas A&M University, released its report on Dec 9.

The NRC group found that the number of illnesses since 1998 associated with AMS ground beef sent to schools was low, even before the rules were revised in February. The committee concluded that the existing rules were appropriate for protecting public health, the NAS said in a Dec 9 press release. Preventing future outbreaks will hinge on reducing contamination during production and making sure the meat is properly handled, stored, and cooked, they noted.

The scientific basis for the AMS purchase specifications is unclear, and some are based on industry practices, the NRC group found. They said adopting scientific principles set by internationally recognized groups such as the Codex Alimentarious Commission could help the AMS provide a more transparent and systematic process and guide actions if criteria are not met.

They wrote that the February 2010 purchase specification updates relied heavily on ad hoc expert opinion, which is not as strong as science-based guidance such as data, formal expert consultation, and peer-reviewed reports.

Using other data the AMS already collects, such as on indicator organisms, could help the agency guide and revise its purchase specifications, the NRC reviewers found. "Analysis of data collected during inspections could establish the strength of statistical links between indicator organisms and pathogens, information that could be used to make purchase specifications more scientifically sound," they wrote.

For comparison, the review group also looked at the specification of 24 different large purchasers. They found that the standards varied considerably, based on the intended use of the meat. For example, distributors of cooked ground beef products had different standards than those distributing fresh products.

Because they found little information on the scientific basis that corporations used to set their ground beef safety standards, the study group said they weren't able to directly compare the AMS standards with those of corporate purchasers.

See also:

Dec 9 NAS press release

NRC federal ground beef safety requirement evaluation

Dec 9, 2009, USA Today story

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