Will FSIS Tighten Regulations on Beef?

April 15, 2008

In the wake of large beef recalls and data indicating that improvements in the safety of beef may be leveling off, the US department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) held a public meeting in Washington D.C. to discuss trends and strategy in combating E. coli 0157:H7 and non-0157 shiga toxin producing E. coli (STECs) contamination. The April 9 and 10 meetings suggest that FSIS is on the verge of promulgating new primal cuts handling and testing protocols and that E. coli O157:H7 may soon be considered an adulterant in beef regardless of the type or intended use of the product in question.

E. coli O157:H7 bacteria can cause serious harm, including the potential for hemorrhagic colitis and post-diarrheal hemolytic uremic syndrome (D+HUS), involving hemolytic anemia (destruction of red blood cells), thrombocytopenia (low platelet count), and acute kidney failure. Populations such as children, senior citizens and those with weak immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

In announcing the meetings last month, Dr. Richard Raymond, US under secretary for food safety, said that “It is time for another series of bold, strong moves based on knowledge and science to produce further significant reductions in illnesses attributed to the products we regulate. We aim to prevent and not just respond to illnesses, and consumers, industry and our public health partners are critical partners in our long term strategy and we look forward to our continuing collaborative relationship to ensure food safety.” At the meeting, FSIS Deputy Assistant Administrator Daniel Engeljohn was even more blunt, conceding that “we have not made decisions about how to go forward, but what we have in place now is not working.” Raymond spoke in similarly immediate terms, noting that: “We have a problem. Let’s work quickly and thoughtfully to find the right prescription to solve it.”

Currently, intact cuts distributed for consumption in that form (and designated as primal and sub-primal cuts such as roasts and steaks) are not necessarily considered adulterated if contaminated with E. coli. There is concern, however, that such cuts are being used as source product for ground beef, effectively obviating sampling and testing protocols applicable to that product. Englejohn stated that, while deliberating this change, FSIS will focus on slaughter/dressing compliance, and will carefully review industry data concerning the efficacy of its sanitary practices and sampling protocols. The meetings provide stakeholders from government, regulated industries, academia and the law to provide input into FSIS’s decision making process.