The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service today released data showing a 43.3% drop in the percentage of E. coli O157:H7 positive ground beef regulatory samples collected in 2004 compared with the previous year.
Of the 8010 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.
In April 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its annual report on foodborne illness in America, 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,” said Acting FSIS Administrator Dr. Barbara Masters. “Improvements in regulatory oversight and training have paid dividends, and we are committed to building on this strong foundation.”
In 2002, FSIS ordered all beef 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 (HACCP) 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. The total number of samples collected in 2004 increased by more than 21 percent.
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.