Does last week’s announcement by the Food Safety and Inspection Service that the agency’s inspectors will begin to test bench-trim for the presence of E. coli O157:H7 signal a new aggressiveness at FSIS toward food safety, in general, and toward pathogenic contamination, in particular?

At this point, the best-informed answer appears to be: Possibly.

Scott Goltry, vice president for food safety and inspection services at the American Meat Institute, told that "it’s not easy to implement a broad new testing program across the whole United States." He doesn’t see the new bench-trim program, which he called "pretty much similar to the trim testing FSIS already does in slaughter plants," as a harbinger of a new approach by FSIS to controlling pathogens.

But others aren’t so sure. "Testing bench-trim is an inspection step that puts pressure on a much larger universe of meat products," said Robert Hibbert, attorney with K&L Gates and a former FSIS official. According to Hibbert, FSIS has until now kept its definition of "adulterated" restricted to ground product, but if the definition is extended to bench-trim, which is not ground, that opens at least the possibility that primal, subprimals and even carcasses could one day be covered by the "adulterated" umbrella. If that happens, the beef industry will find itself in a huge liability situation, with ramifications that will reach down to the smallest cattle operation.

"Bench trim" comprises the small pieces of whole-muscle meat left behind after larger pieces of beef are trimmed on the boning line. Studies have shown that E. coli O157:H7 can live on the surface of whole-muscle cuts, but the high temperatures the surfaces of these cuts are subjected to in cooking kill the pathogen. Ground beef has been a concern, however, because the interior of ground beef is made up of hundreds of tiny meat surfaces, and if the internal temperature doesn’t reach 165°F during cooking, a total pathogen kill on the interior of ground beef products cannot be assured.

A source who spoke to only on the condition of anonymity said: "If FSIS determines that E. coli on a beef carcass makes that carcass adulterated, then what about Salmonella on chicken? Where would they draw the line? I think testing bench-trim has the possibility of setting a very serious precedent that has huge implications."

At last week’s announcement of the new bench-trim testing program, Secretary of Agricultural Tom Vilsack said, "The actions we are taking today will result in safer food in our country, which means healthier children and less costly healthcare."