USDA proposes quicker trace-back for tainted beef

May 2, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) today proposed new guidance on trace-back investigations after evidence of contamination is found in ground beef during routine sampling, a move to more quickly protect consumers against foodborne illness.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also announced a host of other prevention-based measures aimed at boosting food safety. In a statement today, Elisabeth Hagen, MD, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, said the additional measures will boost illness prevention and strengthen the food safety infrastructure.

"Together, these measures will provide us with more tools to protect our food supply, resulting in stronger public health protections for consumers," she said.

During a media briefing today, Hagen said the new draft guidance means inspectors no longer have to wait until a ground beef sample is confirmed as having Escherichia coli O157:H7 before seeking the supplier and identifying other establishments that may have received the same tainted beef trim or ground beef. According to the new policy, inspectors can respond when tests first show a signal for a potential problem.

She predicted that the process could shave 24 to 48 hours off the current response to a suspicious sample. "When you're talking about trace-back, every minute counts," Hagen said, adding that trace-back investigations are a reactive tool that can be put to good use in a more proactive setting that could prompt earlier produce recalls and prevent illness. "This process gets us ahead of the game."

The new guidance is built on inspection processes that are already in place and on the USDA's analysis of the data, she said, adding that the agency will be taking comments from stakeholders on the guidance.

Dan Engeljohn, PhD, assistant policy administrator at FSIS, said inspectors collect about 13,000 to 15,000 samples of ground beef and trim samples, and they find roughly 60 confirmed positive samples. He added that only a few samples more than that are identified as presumed positives on initial tests.

The FSIS also said today that it is implementing three new regulations included in the 2008 Farm Bill that require establishments to prepare and maintain recall procedures, notify the FSIS within 24 hours when a meat or poultry product that could hurt consumers has been shipped into commerce, and document each reassessment of its hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) food safety plans.

The agency also unveiled guidance to walk companies through the process of validating their HACCP food safety systems.

Consumer groups today praised the proposed ground beef trace-back policy as a good step forward. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) said in a statement that it and other groups have long pressed the FSIS to fully trace ground beef that tests positive for E coli O157:H7 to its original source and identify other points on the supply chain that may have received it.

Trace-back activities are especially crucial for ground beef, the group said, because small grinding facilities may purchase and regrind a small portion of a slaughterhouse's product lot, with the rest bought by other facilities.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, JD, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said in a statement today that the new trace-back policy could help curb the toll of deaths and illnesses during outbreaks.

"When it comes to testing for E coli, it makes sense to start trace back procedures upon a presumptively positive test result, and not lose valuable time waiting for a confirmation," she said. "USDA should do the same for antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella in meat products, which just last year hospitalized nearly 50 people and sickened 167."

She urged the USDA to go further and require retail beef grinders, including supermarkets, to keep records of everything they grind, especially given that some chains grind beef from multiple sources, making it tough for investigators to track down a contamination source.

See also:

May 2 FSIS press release

May 2 CFA statement

May 2 CSPI press release

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