US meat industry failing on E.coli testing - Senator

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Ground beef Escherichia coli

The lack of corporate responsibility shown by the US meat industry in failing to follow its own guidelines over E.coli testing of ground beef has forced Congress to act, according to one senator.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was responding to claims made by the American Meat Institute (AMI) to FoodProductionDaily.com that her proposed bill to make E.coli​ testing of ground beef mandatory would only duplicate checks already carried out by industry players.

In the statement, AMI president J. Patrick Boyle said: “If we could eliminate E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef by passing a bill in Congress, we would have insisted that such legislation be enacted years ago. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.”

Not following guidelines

But Gillibrand has hit back at the industry body, accusing meat suppliers of not following their own procedures on E.coli ​testing, while acknowledging that consumers also have a role in combating the deadly bug.

"The meat industry makes some valuable points about the need to handle and cook ground beef carefully, but they are choosing to ignore their own best practices,”​ said Gillibrand.

She added: “Leading processors in the industry, like Costco, have already determined that they cannot rely on suppliers alone to test the meat. Costco says that testing the meat they receive from slaughterhouses is ‘incumbent upon' them, and I agree.

"The USDA has established proper sampling and testing methods that help ensure safer products. The meat industry would do better by their consumers if they chose to adopt their own best practices and the guidelines from the USDA. However, in the absence of corporate responsibility, Congress should take action."

E.coli bill

The New York Senator last week tabled a bill to overhaul the US food safety system – calling the clause to oblige mandatory testing for E.coli​ in ground beef the cornerstone of the legislation. There is currently no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for E. coli,​ she added.

The new legislation that would require all plants that process ground beef to test their products regularly before it is ground and again before it is combined with other beef or ingredients, such as spices, and packaged. If ground beef is found to be contaminated, the bill requires the company to properly dispose of the contaminated batch, or cook the meat to a temperature that destroys the E.coli.

An industry-wide sampling of all ground beef produced, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service in 2009 found that nearly one in every 300 samples of ground beef was contaminated with E.coli​, said Gillibrand.

Ground beef is especially vulnerable to E.coli​ because its source material is not from a single cut of meat but from a compilation of trimmings from many parts, including fat that lies near the surface of possibly contaminated hide.

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