fongpicture.bmpUSDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong testified today before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee concerning, among other things, the inadequacy of Food Safety and Inspection Service’s testing program for E. coli O157:H7 on beef trim, which is used in the production of ground beef:

We recently completed an audit that assessed how the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) samples beef trim for E. coli, which can contaminate products such as ground beef. Currently, FSIS’ inspectors take 60 samples from large lots of beef trim to test. We found, however, that this procedure does not yield a statistical precision that is reasonable for food safety. Although 60 samples may be adequate to detect widespread contamination, more are needed when E. coli is less prevalent.

FSIS’ current sampling methodology results in detection of E. coli less than half the time when it is present in 1 percent of a beef trim lot.

Accordingly, we recommended that the agency place its testing process on sounder statistical ground by redesigning its sampling methodology to account for varying levels of contamination. FSIS generally agreed with our findings and recommendations. In related audit work, we have initiated a review of the agency’s E. coli testing protocols to ensure that beef trim is effectively collected and analyzed. Together, our beef trim sampling and testing audits should help bolster public confidence that FSIS’ tests are accurately identifying E. coli and ultimately preventing contaminated meat from being distributed and consumed.

It takes fewer than 50 individual bacterial cells to cause a severe E. coli O157:H7 illness, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), or death.