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USDA Tests Show Decline of E. Coli in Ground Beef in '04

WASHINGTON -- The industry appears to have E. coli O157:H7 on the run, judging from government inspection data released Monday that shows a 43.3 percent drop in the ground beef regulatory samples testing positive for the potentially deadly bacteria.

The report on the sampling results of products at the federally-inspected plant level came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Of more than 8,000 samples collected and analyzed last year, 0.17 percent tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, down from 0.30 in 2003, 0.78 in 2002, 0.84 in 2001 and 0.86 in 2000, USDA said.

Between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of positive samples in FSIS regulatory sampling has declined by more than 80 percent.

In April 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its annual report on foodborne illness in America, reported a 36 percent reduction in illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 in 2003, compared to 2002. The number of FSIS recall actions related to E. coli O157:H7 has also continued to drop. There were six recalls related to E. coli O157:H7 in 2004, compared to 12 in 2003 and 21 in 2002.

"The reduction in positive E. coli O157:H7 regulatory samples demonstrates the continuing success of our agency's strong, science based policies aimed at reducing pathogens in America's meat, poultry and egg products," said acting FSIS administrator Dr. Barbara Masters. "Improvements in regulatory oversight and training have paid dividends, and we are committed to building on this strong foundation."

Commented James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute (AMI) foundation, "The steady decline in E. coli O157:H7 is a success story and testament to the industry's commitment to continually improve its food safety programs." Hodges noted that the lower prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef has also helped reduce foodborne illness in the United States. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a 36 percent reduction in illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 in 2003 compared to 2002. "The continuing drop of both occurrences of illness from E. coli, and the prevalence of E. coli, are part of the pay-off for an all-out effort by the meat industry to make food safety our number-one priority over the last several years," added Hodges.

Consumer advocates, however, said the USDA should do more testing at different venues, including stores.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Reuters, "The good news is USDA seems to be running more E. coli tests in federal plants and finding fewer positives. Unfortunately, they have significantly reduced their testing in retail stores and for state plants and imported beef," she added.

In 2002, FSIS ordered all beef plants to reexamine their food safety plans, based on evidence that E. coli O157:H7 was a hazard reasonably likely to occur. Plants were required to implement measures that would sufficiently eliminate or reduce the risk of E. coli O157:H7 in their products. Scientifically trained FSIS personnel then began to systematically assess those food safety plans for scientific validity and to compare what was written in plant Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans to what was taking place in daily operations.

A majority of plants have made major changes to their operations based on the directive, including the installation and validation of new technologies specifically designed to combat E. coli O157:H7. Many plants have also increased their testing for E. coli O157:H7 in order to verify their food safety systems. The total number of samples collected in 2004 increased by more than 21 percent.
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