The industry is taking appropriate steps to help ensure that U.S. beef is safe from E. coli contamination, according to a recent audit by the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

The auditors visited six beef slaughter plants directly responsible for processing about 17% of the U.S. beef supply.

"We found that industry was performing thousands of E. coli tests daily generally following the Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS)-recommended procedures.  Overall, industry was taking  appropriate steps to help ensure that U.S. beef is safe from E. coli contamination, recognizing  that regardless of how stringently the industry tests for E. coli, there is always an inherent risk of  its presence in slaughter plants,” the report concluded.

The report also noted that the plants that were visited showed strong initiative in their  efforts to control contamination and to limit the ability of adulterated meat to make its way in to commerce.

Plants took preemptive action, often acting on presumptive positive test results and  in some instances, destroying whole days' worth of production in the name of safety.  When  positive test results were found, plants were conducting investigations to determine the cause and  applied corrective actions to prevent future occurrence of E. coli contamination.  We also found  that these plants generally utilized nationally accredited laboratories for their sample analysis, the report stated.

Auditors also examined whether these tests results are being used to improve food safety, and concluded that there are several areas for improvement. The auditors made the following recommendations:

• Issue revised guidance to industry regarding FSIS expectations for trim sampling and  how industry should plan for and react to high event day periods, including the critical elements  to be included in a high event period plan and the necessary support for the high event period  criteria.

• Review the available scientific data and hold discussions with appropriate stakeholders to determine if FSIS sampling resources could be better utilized and if the identification of E. coli contamination could be improved by sampling more beef trim and less ground beef.

• Reevaluate the policies for how inspectors collect trim samples, including collecting samples of  proper weight. Also reevaluate noncompliance policy ambiguities and revise agency procedures  to ensure that industry is not avoiding regulatory action.

• Develop a detailed plan with milestones and timeframes to determine whether the quality of  inspection in Talmadge-Aiken (T/A) plants is such that there is a higher potential for E. coli contamination in the  products these plants produce. If so, require additional FSIS oversight and improve communication at T/A plants and state inspection agencies. 

To view the audit in its entirety, go to http://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/24601-0001-31.pdf.