April 5, 2013

2 Min Read
Boxed Beef Not Routinely Tested for E. Coli

WASHINGTONA new government audit report issued in March by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General (OIG) revealed not all boxed beef was being routinely tested for E. Coli and recommends the USDAs Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reevaluate its E. Coli testing as it relates to downstream processing for boxed beef products. OIG made 12 separate recommendations, which FSIS accepted, to take additional steps to ensure any boxed beef headed for grinding is eligible for E. coli testing.

The OIG conducted an audit that looked at 11 processing facilities in five states and analyzed data from 1,750 establishments to gain an understanding of the testing of incoming boxed beef, bench trim, and final ground beef products. While the FSIS tests product designated as ground beef or likely to become ground beef, it does not sample all boxed beef product.

During the audit, OIG found that four out of the five plants it visited were not testing boxed beef intended for grinding. The OIG also traced box beef back from two downstream processors to a common slaughter plant and found that FSIS was not sampling the product. FSIS recommends that processors test incoming beef but OIG found that nine of the 11 plants it visited were not following that advice. When it came to mechanically-tenderized meat products, OIG found that none of the five downstream processors it visited used product that had been tested for E. coli by FSIS.

The report also highlighted data problems with FSIS new Public Health Information System (PHIS). OIG reported that in the recent transition to the new data system there were data migration problems that caused FSIS to not correctly sample or test ground beef and ground beef components. At one plant, FSIS did not take any E. coli samples due to a PHIS profile error.OIG said the agency should include more information in PHIS so that inspectors know when to test boxed beef.

FSIS tests product designated as ground beef or likely to become ground beef, but it does not sample all boxed beef product. Boxed beef is so named when large slaughter facilities package cuts such as chuck, round or sirloin into vacuum-sealed bags shipped in large boxes. Slaughter plants assuming these cuts were intended for intact products would not be subject to FSIS E. coli testing, but downstream processors might decide to grind the meat or mechanically tenderize the steaks, potentially introducing pathogens into the meats center.

Certain retail exempt establishments" such as grocery store and butcher shops could potentially grind their own beef, but FSIS does not sample and test bench trim at these establishments for E. coli. FSIS does have a program for periodically testing the final ground beef products at downstream processors and retail exempt establishments before it enters commerce. Also, FSIS is not testing tenderized meat products for E. coli despite several recent recalls.

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