Why has the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture resisted the idea of finding the source of the deadly pathogenE. coli O157:H7 in ground beef for years? Why has it always put the blame for the pathogen on ground-beef grinders, makers of fresh, raw product who have no food-safety interventions, as well as no real way of introducing the pathogen into the meat at their plants?

Last month, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service held a public meeting to consider improvements in the way it traces contaminated products back to their source, especially when the products are beef and the contaminant is the deadly strain ofE. coliO157:H7.

The meeting took place as the government meat inspection agency comes under growing pressure to find the source ofE. coliO157:H7 in ground beef either making consumers sick from the pathogen, or testing positive for the pathogen, even if no illnesses take place that can be linked directly to the product.

Putting the issue in even sharper focus is the recent closure of Prange Meats, a small, 35-year-old Chicago ground-beef grinder and producer, after one USDA test from a 1 lb. sample of ground beef found theE. coli O157:H7. The plant owner, Dan Kotara, had never had an E. coli-positive before, but feared there could always be another positive test in the future. He closed the business.

But what’s gone largely unreported, in both the trade industry and general press, is that large numbers of groundbeef producers have stopped making the product and switched to other types of beef processing and manufacturing, including making cooked products. Why? For many of them, being able to sleep at night beats lying in bed awake, wondering when their first or nextE. coli-positive test will happen.

A beef industry concern

Ever since the first illnesses and deaths of children fromE. coliO157:H7 were reported in 1993, leading to declaration of the pathogen as an adulterant in 1994 and development of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point regulations in 1996, the government’s inability to find the source of contamination, as well as its reluctance to even try, has been a concern in certain parts of the beef industry.The Chicago Tribune, in a study, found USDA does not make an effort to identify the source of contamination after a routine test forE. coliin ground beef comes up positive.

It now sounds as if USDA is thinking about changing, at long last, its strategy for finding where contamination occurs. At last month’s meeting, Jerold Mande, deputy undersecretary for food safety, pointed out that President Obama established his Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food safety throughout the government. He said the group established the importance of contaminant trace-back in the group’s key finds report from last July.

For years, USDA has danced around the issue. The agency has recommended processors follow a test-and-hold policy. It has urged better record keeping to facilitate traceback. And non-intact meat subjected to mechanical tenderization should be labeled, FSIS says.

But it’s no secret that the people who grind beef trim into ground beef have no real effective interventions at that stage of the process. The problem, as everyone knows, begins at the slaughterhouse. One idea proposed by industry would be irradiating the entire beef carcass to kill off pathogens likeE. coli O157:H7. The American Meat Institute even petitioned USDA to allow such irradiation. But for years, USDA has sat on the suggestion, and shows no sign of taking any action to implement the suggestion. Other ideas to help eliminate the pathogen could include interventions before slaughter, antimicrobial interventions when slaughter takes place, carcass irradiation and to a lesser extent, pathogen testing. That’s because taking small samples for testing from a massive amount of beef can completely miss the E. coli pathogen. But safety interventions such as antimicrobial sprays and steam treatments are already used on carcasses. The irradiation of carcasses is potentially the best and most meaningful improvement.

For years, medium- and small-size processors in the industry have pointed to the suppliers as places where FSIS should look. FSIS responded by suggesting small processors and grinders “pressure” the huge slaughterers and packinghouses where they buy their beef. A number of years ago, one large packinghouse, no longer in business, told its small processor clients that taking such action would not be a good idea.
FSIS officials finally said they are open to making improvements to such trace-back investigations. That was what the March public meeting was about. What took USDA so long and whether or not real change will occur are questions processors are anxious to have answered.
Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, a contributing editor and a feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates.