Agriculture under secretary for food safety, Dr. Elsa Murano, has announced a series new meat safety directives to control pathogens in plants that produce ground beef.

The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system requires plants to determine those points in their process where contamination can occur and where it can be controlled. Under these new directives, Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors will determine whether plants have specifically addressed Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 in their Pathogen Reduction/HACCP plans to have effective control measures for these pathogens.

Ground beef plants that do not employ effective decontamination strategies, or that do not require their suppliers to do so as part of their PR/HACCP systems, will be targeted for increased verification testing by FSIS, above that which is already conducted. The USDA currently tests for Salmonella and E.coli O157:H7 in grinding plants to verify that the plants¹ food safety systems are controlling microbial hazards.

"A key part of pathogen reduction is a strong HACCP system," said Murano in a speech to the National Food Policy Conference. "These directives are an example of how we can better tap HACCP¹s potential."

Under the PR/HACCP rule, if a plant does not have an adequate plan, or does not have an adequate sanitation program, the FSIS can withhold marks of inspection or suspend inspection at a plant, which effectively shuts down the plant.

"Recent data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USDA show that foodborne illness is declining in the United States, and that the prevalence of Salmonella in meat and poultry has declined since the implementation of the PR/HACCP rule," said Murano. "If we are going to continue to drive down the incidence of pathogens in raw ground beef, it is crucial that we increase our efforts and resources on those establishments where microbial control may be insufficient."

The directives will be issued within the next several weeks and will be in place while the department works through the rule-making process to include the directives in its food safety regulations.

The announcement today is part of a series of actions USDA announced 18 December 2001 to further improve meat and poultry safety. USDA is expediting the placement of 75 new Consumer Safety Officers with the primary responsibility of conducting in-depth reviews of plant HACCP and sanitation plans throughout the country. This will bring the total CSO staff to 110, supplementing the more than 7600 USDA food safety inspectors nationwide.

The initiatives are part of the USDA¹s overall strategy to improve food safety, which is supported through the Bush Administration¹s FY 2003 budget request for the USDA. It provides for US$905m, the second straight year of record level spending, to strengthen FSIS in order to ensure safe and wholesome meat, poultry and egg products for consumers.