By: Jim Hodges

Office of Inspector General (OIG) audits are commonly received with as much enthusiasm as those from the Internal Revenue Service audits because they are designed to find fault – that’s their job. When an OIG report finds you are doing something well, that’s a message that should make people sit up and take notice.

That was the case last week when USDA’s OIG issued a report declaring that the industry is taking appropriate steps to ensure that U.S. beef is safe from E. coli contamination. In developing the report, OIG auditors visited six beef slaughter plants directly responsible for processing about 17 percent of the U.S. beef supply.

“We found that industry was performing thousands of E. coli tests daily generally following the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) recommended procedures. Overall, industry was taking appropriate steps to help ensure that U.S. beef is safe from E. coli contamination, recognizing that regardless of how stringently the industry tests for E. coli, there is always an inherent risk of its presence in slaughter plants,” the report concluded.

The report also noted that the plants that were visited showed strong initiative in their efforts to control contamination and to limit the ability of adulterated meat to make its way in to commerce.

“Plants took preemptive action, often acting on presumptive positive test results and in some instances, destroying whole days’ worth of production in the name of safety,” the report said.

As surprised as I was, in some respects, that OIG offered such encouraging words, the food safety mindset that is chronicled in the report not news to me; it is something I’ve witnessed grow and develop since the early 1990s.

When E. coli O157:H7 first emerged as a pathogen of concern for the meat industry, we knew relatively little about its origin and how to control it. But since that time, AMI members declared food safety a non-competitive issue and began sharing practices and technologies with one another. We also created a research program to find new strategies to target and destroy E. coli O157:H7 on fresh beef products. The results have been striking.

Since 2000, the number of USDA ground beef samples testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 has declined by 72%. Meanwhile, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that E. coli O157 infections in people have declined 55 percent. The CDC data covers all foods, not just ground beef. Still, there is no question that the declines in the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef have had a positive public health impact.

While “small” and “local” have become the darlings of the media, OIG’s audit and its positive comments were based upon observations in large plants. Though some bloggers and activists would have you believe that large = bad and small = good, the reality is that plants of all sizes can – and do — produce safe food.

Make no mistake: more work remains to be done. Nature has a way of presenting us with new challenges at every turn. But the OIG audit report should be received as a much deserved pat on the back for beef processors – at least for a moment. And then it’s back to work to continue to produce food tomorrow that is even safer than what we produced today.

To view the audit in its entirety, go to http://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/24601-0001-31.pdf.

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