USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service released data showing a 43.3 percent drop in the percentage of E. coli O157:H7-positive ground beef regulatory samples collected in 2004 compared with samples collected during the previous year. Of the 8,010 samples collected and analyzed in 2004, 0.17 percent tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 — down from 0.30 in 2003, 0.78 in 2002, 0.84 in 2001, and 0.86 in 2000. Between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of positive samples in FSIS regulatory sampling has declined by more than 80 percent, FSIS noted in a release. The news is even more noteworthy when one considers that the total number of samples collected in 2004 increased by more than 21 percent.
In April 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its annual report on foodborne illness in the United States, reported a 36 percent reduction in illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 in 2003 compared to 2002. The number of FSIS recall actions related to E. coli O157:H7 also continued to drop. There were six recalls related to E. coli O157:H7 in 2004 compared to 12 in 2003 and 21 in 2002.
“The reduction in positive E. coli O157:H7 regulatory samples demonstrates the continuing success of our agency’s strong, science based policies aimed at reducing pathogens in America’s meat, poultry and egg products,” Acting FSIS Administrator Dr. Barbara Masters commented. “Improvements in regulatory oversight and training have paid dividends, and we are committed to building on this strong foundation.”
“The data and the research and the testing are finally showing that the beef industry complex is doing its job in protecting consumers from dangerous bacteria,” National Meat Association spokesman Jeremy Russell told MeatNews Daily. “For a long time plants have been upgrading, HACCP plans have been improving, and the beef industry has taken the vanguard in implementing process changes that are effective.”
Russell believes a number of factors have lead to the continuing decline in the percent of E. coli-positive samples. “You have to look at interventions,” he said. “Every kind of research that I’ve seen shows that multiple hurdles, whether its steam vacuums followed by steam cabinets and getting the carcass to the chiller quickly and validating temperatures, have a huge effect.”
“The steady decline in E. coli O157:H7 is a success story and testament to the industry’s commitment to continually improve its food safety programs,” James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, added. He noted that the lower prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef has also helped reduce foodborne illness in the United States. He pointed out that last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a 36 percent reduction in illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 in 2003 compared to 2002.
In 2001, the AMI Foundation declared that its two priorities would be to reduce and ultimately eliminate E. coli O157:H7 on fresh beef products and Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat products. “It’s rewarding to see that the pro-active measures we’re taking in the meat industry are having direct pay-off for the American public and consumers of American meat across the globe,” Hodges said.
Russell said the success with reducing the incidence of E. coli contamination in ground beef will serve as a model for reducing the incidence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in other meats.
“This is very good news for consumers and all sectors of the beef industry,” Dane Bernard of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council and vice president of food safety and quality assurance at Keystone Foods, said. “We are proud of the coordinated efforts to reduce this pathogen throughout the beef production chain, from farm to kitchen. It’s great to see such hard work paying off and we will continue toward our goal of further reducing and, if possible, eliminating the threat of E. coli O157:H7.” BIFSCo is funded with beef checkoff dollars and directs a broad effort to solve the E. coli O157:H7 problem, focusing on research, consumer education, and public policy.
In 2002, FSIS ordered all beef processing plants to reexamine their food safety plans, based on evidence that E. coli O157:H7 is a hazard reasonably likely to occur. Plants were required to implement measures that would sufficiently eliminate or reduce the risk of E. coli O157:H7 in their products. Scientifically trained FSIS personnel then began to systematically assess those food safety plans for scientific validity and to compare what was written in plant Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans to what was taking place in daily operations. A majority of plants have made major changes to their operations based on the directive, including the installation and validation of new technologies specifically designed to combat E. coli O157:H7. Many plants have also increased their testing for E. coli O157:H7 in order to verify their food safety systems.
FSIS has also taken steps to ensure that inspection personnel are anticipating problems and that enforcement is carried out promptly and consistently. FSIS launched new training initiatives for inspectors and compliance officers in 2004. Through the use of computer software, inspection actions are analyzed by district officials so trends and areas needing additional attention can be more quickly identified. FSIS has also developed review and management systems to help gauge and improve the performance of inspectors. In 2004, FSIS held a series of teaching workshops around the nation for small and very small plants to discuss new directives designed to strengthen E. coli O157:H7 prevention procedures. The workshops were a part of FSIS’ continuing effort to prevent E. coli O157:H7 contamination and protect public health by providing small and very small plant operators with technical expertise and assistance.