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K-State Today

August 22, 2014

Expedited beef traceback measures aimed to combat foodborne illness

Submitted by Katie Allen

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's, or USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, has added another layer of food safety screening to the U.S. beef supply chain. A recent announcement by the agency stated that new procedures would mean quicker traceback of ground beef contaminated with E. Coli O157:H7 and removal of that ground beef from the supply chain to prevent foodborne illness.

The new procedures would allow the FSIS to immediately investigate a product that had initially tested positive for E. coli at a grinding facility, as well as conduct immediate investigations of the suppliers of the raw trimmings for that product, said Travis O'Quinn, assistant professor of meat science in the animal sciences and industry department at Kansas State University.

Currently, he said, the FSIS takes samples of ground beef at grinding facilities that receive raw materials, such as beef trim, from packing facilities. The grinding facilities make the packaged ground beef that is then shipped to retail stores for consumers to purchase.

The FSIS screens the samples using an initial test to identify the presence of E. coli, O'Quinn added. If a sample initially tests positive, the FSIS sends the presumptive positive sample to a third party laboratory to conduct a confirmatory test. It isn't until after the product is confirmed positive for E. coli when FSIS investigations would start to traceback the raw materials that created that particular ground beef product.

"The new investigation procedures would change that and allow for the confirmation two-day process to not be mandatory before the FSIS can investigate the potentially contaminated product," he said. "Two days in a food safety investigation means a lot in terms of being able to trace a source of a product and remove a potentially contaminated product from commerce. The new procedures would allow the timeframe to be a lot faster."

The most affected areas of the supply chain, based on this announcement, would include beef grinders and further processors, as well as the packer suppliers who sell beef trimmings to the grinding facilities, O'Quinn said. The FSIS would be able to identify any other grinding facilities where that supplier might have sent the potentially contaminated product from the same lot or batch of trimmings.

The FSIS said it predicts that dozens more recalls could occur once these new protections are in place. But, O'Quinn said consumers should not be alarmed when they hear "more recalls," as most of the recalls the FSIS mentions as potentially occurring won't be meat that reaches the retail level.

"The new procedures would actually allow for that product to be identified prior to going to most retailers, and so it would allow for the grinders to recall product that has not been shipped out the door to the retail level yet," O'Quinn said. "This does save the consumer from potentially receiving the contaminated product in the first place."

"This all goes back to consumer safety and trying to reduce the number of foodborne illness related to ground beef products," he added. "The USDA FSIS has a big initiative trying to decrease foodborne illness related to ground beef products, and these new procedures go into that."

Read a related story about a recent FSIS proposed rule to enhance ground beef tracking at the retail level to prevent foodborne illness.

For more information about the new traceback procedures, visit the USDA FSIS website.