WASHINGTON –The US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) recommended that the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) take steps to thoroughly reevaluate its N-60 sampling program. OIG stated this sample size and design may not be adequate for detecting E. coli O157:H7 in beef trim given the “presumed low occurrence of the pathogen.” But FSIS expressed concern that the very low — and declining — prevalence of the pathogen makes it extremely difficult to detect E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef.

OIG noted this inherent challenge, saying that, “The dilemma facing FSIS is that as plants’ controls and interventions become more effective at eliminating fecal material on carcasses, the presence [or prevalence rate] of E. coli O157:H7 contamination in beef trim becomes lower. Statistically, the lower the prevalence rate, the more difficult the pathogen is to find and the more samples need to be taken to detect it.”

OIG was told by FSIS that increasing the number of samples will require significant additional labor and laboratory costs. OIG then suggested that FSIS take advantage of the fact that many plants are independently performing hundreds of their own E. coli O157:H7 tests daily and perhaps utilize these plants’ testing results to augment the agency’s own tests. FSIS currently has access to those test results under federal regulations.

OIG further recommended FSIS “move to an inspection system that will determine which processing plants are at a higher risk of E. coli O157:H7 contamination.”

Other OIG recommendations are:

  • Develop and implement a plan with specific timeframes and milestones to prioritize and perform necessary baseline studies of beef trim and ground beef in order to determine the estimated prevalence rate of E. coli O157:H7 for redesigning FSIS’ sampling program. The plan should include how often the prevalence should be reassessed.
  • Re-evaluate its sample parameters (size and confidence level) and redesign a sampling program for E. coli O157:H7 in beef trim.
  • Thoroughly document the scientific support and rationale for FSIS’ revised E. coli O157:H7 sampling program design, including the contamination level that will be associated with the new sample parameters and how the estimated prevalence rate impacts the new design. Publish FSIS’ revised E. coli O157:H7 sampling design, in addition to its support and design rationale, for public comment. Consider any recommended changes before implementing the new sampling program.
  • Develop a detailed operational plan with specific timeframes and milestones to implement an inspection system that focuses E. coli O157:H7 sampling and testing resources primarily at plants that are likely to be of higher risk, and consider the use of specialized sample collection teams.

This report in response to a Congressional request represents the results of Phase I. In Phase II, OIG will examine testing procedures at plants.