Auditor wants more E coli testing on 'boxed beef'

Apr 5, 2013

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) needs to reevaluate its E. coli testing methodology, as it relates to the downstream processing of boxed beef products, according to a March 28 report. The audit referred more specifically to intact cuts of meat that end up being ground into hamburger or mechanically tenderized.

According to OIG, FSIS tests product designated as ground beef or likely to become ground beef, but does not sample all boxed beef products. Some downstream processors grind such boxes of unsampled cuts of beef without sampling for E. coli prior to grinding.

The report also pointed out that retail exempt establishments, such as grocery stores or butcher shops, often grind their own ground beef, without testing. When intact cuts are not intended for grinding, they are not subject to USDA E coli testing, the report explains.

“Establishments downstream receive such boxed beef bearing the USDA mark of inspection and may assume that it is pathogen free and, therefore, safe for grinding; however, the product was seldom considered eligible for testing for E coli,” the audit said.

OIG based its findings on field observations at 11 meat-processing plants in five states and on FSIS data from 1,750 facilities. The data came from the FSIS’s Public Health Information System.

The inspectors checked five downstream processors that tenderized meat for retail or consumers and found that FSIS didn’t test the product at any of them. According to the report, two outbreaks have been tied to tenderized meat, one of them involving 19 cases in six states and necessitating a recall of 248,000 pounds of meat.

OIG made 12 recommendations, including that FSIS take additional steps to ensure that beef to be ground throughout the production process be subject to FSIS sampling and testing.

FSIS plans to reevaluate procedures for sampling boxed beef product as bench trim and issue clarification to FSIS’s inspectors on the agency’s requirements. In addition, consider the risk associated with a downstream processor’s own verification testing (or lack of testing) when evaluating the frequency of sampling.

FSIS agrees that boxed beef product designated as intended for grinding at a “downstream” processor should be eligible for sampling and testing as “bench trim” at the grinding establishment by FSIS.

Although FSIS is responsible for ensuring that ground beef is free from E coli contamination, it was noted that a significant amount of bench trim is ground in the nation’s approximately 64,000 grocery stores, wholesale clubs, and butcher shops, where FSIS may periodically visit, but the agency does not sample and test bench trim.

The audit pointed out that these establishments are directly regulated by state and local health authorities and FSIS is not required to perform the E coli sampling that it would ordinarily perform for monitoring a larger federallyinspected plant.

FSIS officials agreed with all of the recommendations, according to the report. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor