In what it termed "a continuing effort to strengthen food safety programmes and protect public health," the US Department of Agriculture [USDA], through its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), yesterday [Tuesday] announced a series of new measures designed to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 contamination of raw ground beef.

The actions are a result of FSIS's ongoing in-depth review of the current programme and are based on scientific data that demonstrate the pathogen is more prevalent than previously estimated. "Strengthening food safety programmes that protect consumers from food borne hazards continues to be a top priority at USDA," said secretary of agriculture Ann M.Veneman. "These actions will further help ensure that meat and poultry plants address ways to reduce the presence of E. coli O157:H7."

"The scientific data show that E. coli O157:H7 is more prevalent than previously estimated," said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elsa Murano. "These action steps move beyond detection of this hazard and on to preventing it."

In December 2001, FSIS announced that it would conduct a comprehensive review of current food safety regulations, including provisions of the 1996 Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (PR/HACCP) rule, to help improve the efficiency and accountability of FSIS programmes and personnel. The following actions will be published in the Federal Register as a notice. USDA will:

  • Require beef slaughter and grinding plants to acknowledge that E. coli O157:H7 is a hazard reasonably likely to occur in their operations, unless they can prove otherwise;
  • Require, based on the above assumption, plants to perform a comprehensive re-examination of their food safety systems and include a step to eliminate or reduce the risk of E. coli O157:H7 in their product. In the case of grinding operations, this could consist of a requirement for their suppliers to certify the utilization of a decontamination method in their operation;
  • Verify through increased USDA inspection that intervention steps implemented by establishments are validated, in that they are effective under actual in-plant conditions;
  • Eliminate current exemptions from FSIS microbiological testing. This will result in random testing of all beef grinding operations by FSIS personnel and;
  • Issue guidance to grinding facilities regarding additional prevention actions including: 1) increased plant testing for E. coli O157:H7; and 2) avoiding mixing product from different suppliers to reduce the chance of cross contamination and facilitate traceback investigations.

The actions being taken today are in addition to the other actions recently announced by FSIS including:

  • Immediately informing the suppliers of an establishment where an E. coli O157:H7 positive occurs so that a trace back investigation is begun;
  • The placement of 100 Consumer Safety Officers (CSO), scientifically trained inspection personnel, to ensure that plants have properly designed and functioning HACCP plans. FSIS will continue to increase CSOs in the next fiscal year.
  • Improve the implementation of salmonella performance standards to ensure problem plants are targeted for action earlier and public health is protected;
  • Establishment of the Office of Program Evaluation, Enforcement and Review to scrutinise FSIS programs and policies to ensure they are implemented and monitored correctly;
  • Develop and strengthen current review and management systems to help gauge and improve the performance of inspectors;
  • Ongoing refinement of inspector HACCP training through the new Center for Learning;
  • Establishment of a formal regulatory testing regime to verify the absence of spinal cord tissue in Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR) produced beef;
  • Sharing of product distribution lists with state and local government authorities through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) when there is a recall; and
  • A series of scientific symposia designed to help FSIS apply the latest scientific knowledge to address food safety issues and improve public health.