Eliminating E. coli in ground beef 'not that easy'

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON — Responding to word that The "E. coli eradication act" would be introduced "in the coming days", J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive office of the American Meat Institute, said, "If we could eliminate E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef by passing a bill in Congress, we would have insisted that such legislation be enacted years ago. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy."

The "E. coli eradication act" would require all facilities manufacturing ground beef to test their product "regularly" before it is ground and again before it is combined with other beef or ingredients. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York will introduce the legislation. The definition of what would be considered "regularly," is a point not that hasn’t yet been clarified.

According to the act, a company would be required to dispose of the batch or cook it to a temperature that kills the E. coli if ground beef is found to be contaminated. Penalties for companies that do not implement the additional testing mechanisms in processing facilities also will be included in the legislation.

"Every day that meat businesses are open, they are focused on producing beef that is as safe as it possibly can be "because this benefits our customers, our families and our businesses," Mr. Boyle said.

Although Mr. Boyle said he appreciates the intent of Senator Gillibrand’s recently announced bill, not only is it not a food-safety silver bullet — it would actually duplicate millions of tests currently being conducted by the meat industry, he charged

The most effective way to address E. coli O157:H7 and other invisible germs is to use food-safety strategies throughout the production process, from the farm to the table, Mr. Boyle continued.

"By erecting multiple ‘bacteria roadblocks’ throughout the production and distribution system, such as hide cleaners, carcass washes and steam pasteurization cabinets, ensuring proper refrigeration during distribution and maintaining careful separation of raw and cooked foods and proper cooking of ground beef in restaurants and home kitchens, there is a far better chance of product safety than additional testing for invisible pathogens will provide," Mr. Boyle said.

There are testing limits, he cautioned:

  • The test result is only a sample. A measured sample of the ground beef ingredients is pulled from a container of beef and sent to a lab and tested. The testing process destroys the sample. When the results come back, the test results document will sometimes say something such as "These results apply only to the sample that was tested." Sampling other portions of the container may yield a different result.
  • A negative test result does not mean the product is clear of contamination’ they are not a guarantee because they only represent a sampling of the whole product.
  • The product in the grocery store has been sampled, not tested. Although U.S.D.A. and the industry take thousands of ground-beef samples and test them for E. coli, there is no tested product in the marketplace because the product is destroyed during the testing process.
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