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    Tainted E. Coli Ground Beef Samples Decline

    WASHINGTON - The number of ground beef samples tainted with harmful E. coli bacteria has dropped even with increased checks and a more sensitive test, the government said this week.

    Tainted E. Coli Ground Beef Samples Decline
    WASHINGTON - The number of ground beef samples tainted with harmful E. coli bacteria has dropped even with increased checks and a more sensitive test, the government said this week.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service released data showing a drop in the number of E. coli O157:H7 positive samples in ground beef collected to date in 2003 compared with past years.

    Of the samples collected and analyzed through Aug. 31, 0.32 percent tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, down from 0.78 in 2002 and 0.84 in 2001. In 2000, after FSIS began using a much more sensitive E. coli O157:H7 test, 0.86 percent of samples tested positive. Since 2001, FSIS has collected more than 7,000 samples annually, up from 6,300 in 2000.

    "The agency's sampling data suggests that initiatives begun in the past year are beginning to pay dividends," said FSIS administrator Dr. Garry L. McKee. "We have examined the HACCP plans at more than 1,000 beef establishments and ended a 1998 program that exempted some establishments from random FSIS testing. We are also examining all plant-generated data to better detect future problems. We are far from satisfied, but the arrow is clearly pointing in the right direction."

    In October 2002, FSIS ordered all beef plants to reexamine their food safety plans, based on evidence that E. coli O157:H7 is a hazard reasonably likely to occur and to implement interventions to prevent it. Scientifically trained FSIS personnel then began to systematically assess those food safety plans for scientific validity and to compare what was written to what was taking place in daily operations.

    A majority of the plants have made major changes to their operations based on the directive, including the installation and validation of new technologies specifically designed to combat E. coli O157:H7. Many plants have also increased their testing for E. coli O157:H7 in order to verify their food safety systems.

    FSIS says it has also taken steps to ensure that inspection personnel are anticipating problems and that enforcement is carried out promptly and consistently while noting its new training initiatives for inspectors and compliance officers put into effect in April of this year. Through the use of new computer software, inspection actions are analyzed by district officials so trends and areas needing additional attention can be more quickly identified. FSIS says it has also developed review and management systems to help gauge and improve the performance of inspectors.

    In addition to these efforts, USDA announced a series of new, science-based initiatives on July 10 to better understand, predict and prevent microbiological contamination of meat and poultry products, thereby improving health outcomes for American families.

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