USDA announces plans to reduce E coli contamination in ground beef

Oct 23, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Officials from the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) today unveiled a host of actions that the agency hopes will blunt a recent spike in Escherichia coli outbreaks involving ground beef.

The FSIS said in a statement that since January it has issued 15 recalls because of E coli O157:H7 in ground beef, of which eight were linked to illnesses. For comparison, the agency said it only issued eight recalls for strains of E coli in ground beef in 2006, none of which were related to illnesses.

Measures announced today range from accelerating safety programs that were already in the works, such as a new follow-up testing program for beef plants that have had positive E coli O157:H7 tests to new initiatives such as verifying that sites are controlling the pathogen during slaughter and processing.

"We want the American consumer to know that FSIS has taken a number of aggressive actions to respond to a recent increase in E coli O157:H7 recalls and illnesses associated with this pathogen and we are further expanding these efforts," said Richard Raymond, FSIS undersecretary for food safety, in today's statement.

The FSIS said that in June it started noticing more positive E coli O157:H7 samples in ground beef. In response, it increased the number of tests for the pathogen by 75% in July, but results didn't point to any unusual patterns.

However, the issue came to a head in September when contaminated ground beef produced by Topps Meat, based in Elizabeth, N.J., sickened several people in mainly northeastern states and led to the recall of 21.5 million pounds of ground beef, one of the largest recalls in US history. Shortly after the recall, Topps announced it was ceasing operations because it could not bear the cost of the recall.

E coli O157:H7 produces a toxin that causes diarrhea, often bloody, and abdominal cramps but usually no fever. The illness usually resolves in 5 to 10 days, but it can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), potentially leading to kidney failure or death, in 2% to 7% of patients. According to an Oct 18 update from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Topps outbreak has so far been linked to 40 illnesses in eight states.

The FSIS said it had already planned to launch new inspection routines that would incorporate a checklist designed to review whether suppliers and processors are taking the right steps to control for E coli contamination. Launch of the new system was scheduled for spring 2008, but it now will launch this November as soon as inspectors complete training on how to use the newly developed list. Checklist results will go into a database that will guide follow-up inspections.

Raymond said in the FSIS statement that the Topps recall taught agency officials that they needed to do more to strengthen policies and programs. "We also realized that to make risk-based inspection in processing most effective, we need to strengthen our database that will support that system," he added.

Among the new measures to target E coli contamination, the FSIS said it would:

  • Require beef plants to verify that that they are controlling E coli O157:H7 and provide processors with specific examples of controls that meet its safety criteria
  • Test more domestic and imported ground beef components, in addition to beef trim, which the FSIS began testing for in March
  • Issue more rapid ground beef recalls when E coli contamination is suspected
  • Begin routine, targeted sampling for E coli O157:H7 at slaughtering and grinding facilities starting in January 2008; larger facilities will be tested more often, and data from inspector checklists will determine frequency at other sites
  • Notify countries that export beef to the United States about new policies and programs to control E coli
  • Conduct outreach and training sessions for small producers in October and November
  • Convene a meeting of experts and stakeholderson on E coli O157:H7 issues later this fall
  • Hold a meeting this winter for state and local public health officials on how to improve outbreak investigations

See also:

Oct 23 FSIS press release

Oct 18 CDC update on Topps E coli O157:H7 outbreak

Oct 23 FSIS comprehensive list of E coli reduction actions

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