WASHINGTON (FNS) -- A new plan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls for random testing of ground beef to determine the presence of the potentially fatal bacteria E. coli 0157:H7.
If contamination were found, the government would order the meat to be destroyed or cooked to an adequate temperature to kill the bacteria.
Michael Taylor, the newly appointed administrator of the agriculture department's Food Safety Inspection Service, unveiled this latest addition to its enforcement agenda in a Sept. 29 speech in San Francisco at the annual convention of the Arlington, Va.-based American Meat Institute.
Food industry executives contacted by SN questioned the need for this particular plan in light of other government plans for food safety programs now under consideration, but the representative of a consumer group applauded the plan.
Taylor said the agency considers this virulent strain of E. coli bacteria to be an adulterant, which under the Federal Meat Inspection Act gives USDA authority to exclude any contaminated beef from commerce.
The testing program is part of an overall meat and poultry food-safety agenda embarked on by the Clinton administration two years ago. E. coli, Taylor said, is "one of our most critical food safety concerns.
"This sampling program is not by itself likely to detect a significant number of contaminated lots and will not by itself significantly reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks of foodborne illness attributed to 0157:H7," Taylor said.
"It is intended to build our knowledge and experience regarding sampling and testing for this pathogen. It also will serve as an example and an incentive for those commercial enterprises that produce, process and market raw ground beef to control their processes and conduct their own tests."
FSIS estimates, he said, that a fraction of 1% of all beef carcasses may be contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.
There have been repeated outbreaks of illnesses and deaths tied to E. coli since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control began collecting data on the bacteria 12 years ago. Taylor said estimates indicate that at least 10,000 cases of foodborne illness stemming from E. coli occur per year.
E. coli contamination occurs when a cow's intestines and manure come in contact with the muscle meat during slaughter. The bacteria can only be killed through thorough cooking.
Officials at the Food Marketing Institute here reserved comment on Taylor's plan. "It's not yet entirely clear how his proposals will affect retailers. But we are looking forward to working with USDA to improve food safety without putting undo burdens on our industry," said Edie Maleski, FMI's director of media relations.
The American Meat Institute, however, views the E. coli initiative as being misdirected and a potential nightmare for retailers.
"This is an unprecedented move," said Jim Marsden, AMI senior vice president for scientific affairs, stressing the need for FSIS to focus its efforts on establishing Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points regulations and other initiatives to reduce pathogens, instead of enforcement initiatives such as the new E. coli plan. He said Taylor is side-stepping the blueprint for improving food safety already set out by the agency in the recently introduced Pathogen Reduction Act. The Act calls for establishing acceptable levels for pathogens in meat and poultry and for regulations for testing products for these pathogens.
"It is unclear, just from his comments, what kind of burden and requirements he intends to impose upon retailers and wholesalers," said Tom Wenning, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va.
Carol Tucker Foreman, a lobbyist on food issues and a former USDA undersecretary in charge of meat inspection in the Carter administration, said retailers should embrace the E. coli initiative. "I don't think there is a supermarket chain anywhere in the country that would like to stand in front of the meat counter and say to the customers, 'We don't want USDA to test for this particular virulent bacterium that has caused deaths and horrible illnesses, because it's too expensive or it's inconvenient,' " she said.