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FSIS and beef industry praised for pre-emptive E.coli action

By Mark Astley , 21-May-2012

The US beef industry and the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) have been showered with praise after showing “strong initiative” in their efforts to prevent E.coli contamination during processing.

A report, which followed a series of inspections by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), found that the beef industry was following FSIS recommendations and performing thousands of E.coli tests each day.

The six beef slaughter plants visited by the authority process around 12% of the US beef supply.

The OIG report, Application of FSIS Sampling Protocol for Testing Beef Trim for E.coli O157:H7, came in response to concerns from the US Congress in 2009.

It is the second and final part of an investigation into the effectiveness of FSIS testing for E.coli contamination in beef.

Despite the reported FSIS testing efficacy, the report made several policy recommendations, including a larger focus on small meat plants.

Strong initiative

“Overall, industry was taking appropriate steps to help ensure that US beef is safe from E.coli contamination, recognising that regardless of how stringently the industry tests for E.coli, there is always an inherent risk of its presence in slaughter plants,” said the OIG report.

“We found these large plants showed strong initiative in their efforts to control contamination and limit the ability of adulterated meat to make its way in to commerce.”

“Plants took pre-emptive action, often acting on presumptive positive test results and in some instances, destroying whole days’ worth of production in name of safety,” it said.

Inspectors found that when positive E.coli results were found, plants were conducting investigations to determine the cause.

Corrective actions to prevent future occurrences of E.coli contamination were then implemented.

“We also found that these plants generally utilised national accredited laboratories for their sample analysis,” said the report.

Small plants

The report also highlighted areas where the FSIS and the meat industry could further ensure the safety of food

It made recommendations that the FSIS shift its testing resources to sampling beef trim for E.coli contamination rather than raw ground beef.

The report also urged the authority to improve the consistency with which inspectors collect testing samples, after it discovered that many of the product specimens taken by inspectors were too large.

“Finally, we found that FSIS needs to take steps to ensure that small plants, particularly those regulated by State meat inspection agencies as part of a cooperative agreement with USDA, are being correctly overseen,” it added.

These small plants, which are often referred to Talmadge-Aiken (T/A) facilities, are responsible for processing less than 1% of the US beef supply.

The report urged the FSIS to “develop a detailed plan with milestones and timeframes to determine whether the quality of inspection in T/A plants is such that there is a higher potential for E.coli contamination in the products these plants produce.”

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