FSIS issues cost/benefit analysis of expanding E.coli testing in ground beef

By Heidi Parsons

- Last updated on GMT

An FSIS microbiologist adds reagents for a non-O157:H7 E. coli analysis at the agency’s laboratory in Athens, Georgia.
An FSIS microbiologist adds reagents for a non-O157:H7 E. coli analysis at the agency’s laboratory in Athens, Georgia.

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The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is looking to expand its E. coli testing of ground beef and ground beef components. Toward that end, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is seeking public comments on its latest analysis of the costs and benefits of additional testing.

FSIS has published that analysis on its website, and interested parties have until January 20, 2015 to submit comments via Regulations.gov.

The agency announced the availability of the economic analysis in the Federal Register​. In that announcement, FSIS included the comments it received — and its responses to those comments — regarding its September 20, 2011 Federal Register​ notice about potentially expanding E. coli testing in ground beef components.

The majority of those comments came from meat industry associations, which argued that FSIS had underestimated the financial burden additional testing would place on beef harvesting operations (i.e., abattoirs). Most of FSIS' responses countered the industry's cost estimates, based on what the agency has learned from initiatives undertaken in the past three years.

Survey says...

Specifically, in June 2012, FSIS implemented a verification sampling and testing program for six non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) strains in raw beef trimmings.

The agency followed up in 2013 with its Pathogen Controls in Beef Operations Survey. The survey asked FSIS inspectors in 486 beef slaughtering and processing plants about the controls that are in place to reduce STEC and Salmonella contamination.

According to FSIS, survey results showed that about 29% of the beef establishments reassessed their Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans for raw beef products based on the non-O157 STEC policy implemented in 2012. The survey also found that 43% of the facilities that tested for non-O157 STEC took more than one action (such as confirmatory testing following presumptive positive results or cooking) with products that screened positive.

FSIS used the survey results and an updated risk assessment to develop the updated economic analysis.

Next steps

Once the current comment period ends on January 20, “the agency’s intention is to move toward regulation,”​ FSIS spokesperson Lauren Kotwicki told FoodProductionDaily. “But we won’t know how close we are until we receive and review this round of comments.”

First, she said, FSIS officials will consider those comments and amend the proposal to expand non-O157 STEC testing as appropriate. Then the agency will submit the document to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for its review and comment.

“We may go back and forth for awhile with OMB,”​ Kotwicki said. “It’s hard to say what the timetable may be for the proposal to reach the Final Rule stage.”

FSIS_STEC testing 2014-2015

Incidentally, FSIS has also issued its Annual Sampling Program Plan for FY2015. The plan describes FSIS’ microbiological and chemical residue sampling programs for domestic establishments, imports, and in-commerce facilities in FY2014, as well as its overall strategy for directing its sampling resources in FY2015.

The Annual Sampling Program Plan contains a table (see above) listing the types of domestic sampling projects it conducts for STEC testing in ground beef and ground beef components. The table also shows the number of samples FSIS planned to and did analyze in FY2014, and how many it plans to analyze in fiscal 2015.

The Annual Sampling Program Plans for both FY2014 and FY2015 are available on the FSIS website.

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