A critical New York Times article over the weekend outlined ground-beef production practices and traced how E. coli O157:H7 can enter the beef supply. The article, titled “E. coli path shows flaws in beef inspection,” documents the case of a young woman who became severely and chronically ill from ground beef contaminated with E. coli. The writer faults processors and the USDA’s inspection process for not intercepting the pathogen early in the process, before meat and trimmings from various sources are blended together.
Today, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued the following response, outlining USDA’s commitment to reducing food-borne illness.
"The story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic. We all know we can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend's paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7. Over the last eight months since President Obama took office, USDA has been aggressive in its efforts to improve food safety, and has been an active partner in establishing and contributing to President Obama's Food Safety Working Group.
"Protecting public health is the sole mission of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. FSIS has continued to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli O157:H7 and the agency is committed to working to reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses caused by this pathogen.
"Shortly after coming into office, the Administration created a high-level Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food safety policies, focus greater resources on prevention, and improve response to outbreaks. Since doing so, we have taken the following actions:
- Launched an initiative to cut down E. coli contamination (including in particular contamination from E. coli O157:H7) and as part of that initiative, stepped-up meat facility inspections involving greater use of sampling to monitor the products going into ground beef.
- Appointed a chief medical officer within USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service to reaffirm its role as a public health agency.
- Issued draft guidelines for industry to further reduce the risk of O157 contamination.
- Started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issuing new instructions to our employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses.
- Designed the Public Health Information System(PHIS) in response to lessons learned in past outbreaks.
"USDA is also looking at ways to enhance traceback methods and will initiate a rulemaking in the near future to require all grinders, including establishments and retail stores, to keep accurate records of the sources of each lot of ground beef.
"No priority is greater to me than food safety and I am firmly committed to taking the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness and protect the American people from preventable illnesses. We will continue to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli 0157:H7."
Read the New York Times article.