"The safety of the food supply is better than it has ever been," said Dr Richard Raymond, under secretary for food safety. "But we still acknowledge that we can do much better."
"Since January there have been 15 recalls related to E coli in beef this year, eight of those have been associated with human illnesses. In comparison, in 2006 there were only eight related recalls and none of those were related to human illnesses and in 2005 there were only five E coli related recalls. So obviously something has changed."
Raymond was speaking this week at a news conference, where officials from USDA's Food Safety and inspection Service (FSIS) announced new actions to minimize the risk of illnesses from E coli contamination.
FSIS determined steps were also needed to ensure that inspection program personnel and the industry fully understand the nature of the challenge presented by E coli O157:H7.
The agency said it will ensure that, together with suppliers and processors, it will be able to identify an emerging problem as early as possible and to prevent contaminated product from entering the marketplace.
Key initiatives announced include the testing of more domestic and imported ground beef components. FSIS will begin testing these materials that are used as components in raw ground beef, in addition to the beef trim that is already tested, which is the primary component of ground beef. FSIS is also requiring countries whose beef is imported to the U.S. to conduct the same sampling or at least an equivalent measure.
The agency also informed the beef industry that as of November, all beef plants will be expected to verify that they are effectively controlling E coli O157:H7 during slaughter and processing.
FSIS inspection program personnel will also undergo specialized training, and will begin reviewing both suppliers and processors based on a new checklist, which will help the agency more quickly identify significant changes in plants' production controls and ensure the company takes corrective action.
In January 2008, FSIS will begin routine targeted sampling for E coli O157:H7 at slaughter and grinding facilities. Currently, all plants have an equal chance of being tested. Under this new verification testing program, FSIS said it will test larger volume operations more frequently than in the past.
More rapid recalls are also on the cards. The agency said it now takes into account a broader, more complete range of evidence when evaluating whether to seek a recall or take regulatory action. This, it claims, gives it a credible approach to more rapidly taking action when certain types of evidence are available.
Part of the initiative to improve safety efforts also includes working more closely with federal partners, stakeholders, small plants and public health partners, said the agency.