WASHINGTON – The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service needs to re-evaluate its E. coli testing procedures for boxed beef products, according to recommendations in a recent audit by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

OIG defined boxed beef as boxed whole beef cuts of primals or sub-primals that are packaged in large boxes and that other processors may further divide into steaks, roasts or other cuts or grind into hamburger. OIG auditors found that FSIS inspectors tested ground beef or trim destined to become ground beef. But they generally did not test boxed beef products even though establishments “downstream” were grinding the product.

When asked about the practice “…FSIS officials explained that they intended for these boxed beef products to be tested under their procedures for testing bench trim, but that they did not adequately convey their intentions to FSIS inspection personnel at the plants,” OIG said in its report. “As a result, some portion of the product used to produce ground beef consumers purchase is not included in FSIS sampling, and the public has less assurance that ground beef is not contaminated.”

In addition to its testing of boxed beef products, the OIG report stated that FSIS needed to improve its oversight of grinding of bench trim at retail exempt institutions. OIG found that a “significant amount” of bench trim is ground at the retail level — approximately 64,000 retail exempt establishments that include grocery stores, wholesale clubs and butcher shops. FSIS may periodically visit these establishments, the report stated, but inspectors were not testing bench trim for E. coli like they do in federally inspected plants.

“Consumers who purchase ground beef that was ground in retail exempt establishments are not receiving the same safeguards from E. coli pathogen testing as those who purchase ground product prepared at a federally inspected establishment,” according to the audit. “Recent recalls from these types of establishments have been related to over a dozen illnesses.”

OIG recommended that FSIS create an assessment, such as a survey, to determine the risks associated with the potential volumes of untested bench trim and boxed beef that is ground at retail establishments.

OIG also addressed the issue of mechanically tenderized beef. FSIS does not sample tenderized meat products for E. coli. Tenderized meat products have been involved in several recent recalls, including the XL Foods Inc., Alberta, Canada public health alert that turned into the largest beef recall in Canadian history.

OIG’s other findings included:

• Incorrect plant profile information was entered into USDA’s Public Health Information System (PHIS). FSIS uses the web-based tool to maintain information on federally inspected plants and to manage information and schedule tasks — such as when to collect E. coli samples — for FSIS personnel.

• Smaller processors were reluctant to keep detailed grinding logs that are crucial in case of a recall. OIG auditors said FSIS needs to ensure all processors maintain sufficient records for recall and trace back purposes.

OIG’s objectives for conducting the audit were to determine how effectively FSIS was sampling boxed beef products and requesting correct samples for E. coli testing. Auditors also tried to determine whether trace back documentation was adequate and used effectively to determine the source of E. coli contamination. Auditors visited 11 processing facilities in five states to learn about testing of incoming boxed beef, bench trim and final ground beef products. Auditors also reviewed PHIS profile data from 1,750 establishments and selected 22 for additional review.