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USDA E. Coli Testing of Meat to Increase Following Topps Ground Beef Recall

Oct 24, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

E. coli testing at meat processing plants should increase dramatically under new rules set to be implemented by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The changes were prompted after the USDA was criticized for its handling of the Topps Meat Company ground beef recall earlier this month.   The USDA hopes the changes will stem the rising tide of meat-related E. coli outbreaks and recalls, which have hit record numbers this year.  

On September 25, the Topps Meat Company recalled more than 300,000 pounds of frozen ground beef after it was tied to 6 cases of E. coli in New York State.   Dozens more cases of E. coli linked to tainted Topps ground beef were soon confirmed around the country, and by September 29, Topps had recalled another 21.7 million pounds of meat.   Topps, a privately-held company controlled by Buffalo-based Strategic Investments & Holdings Inc., soon announced that it would be going out of business.

Yesterday, media outlets reported that in the months leading up to the recall, Topps was ignoring many standard safety procedures at its New Jersey plant. Topps had quit testing its meat for E. coli contamination once a month, and was only doing so three times per year.   Topps also did not require its domestic beef suppliers to test their meat for E. coli, and the company often mixed tested and untested meat together.  This was allowed to occur even though USDA inspectors visited the Topps Meat Company plant on a daily basis.

So far this year, there have been 16 recalls of E. coli contaminated meat, up substantially from last year.  For that reason, the USDA announced several new safety measurers aimed at improving the safety of the US meat supply.  The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service said that it has increased E. coli testing of meat by more than 75%, and is working on a new program that will subject meat processing plants that have had E. coli problems in the past to greater scrutiny.  The USDA will also conduct more tests of meat used in ground beef, like beef trim, because the process of grinding beef can spread E. coli bacteria.  Countries importing beef into the US will be required to conduct the same or equivalent E. coli tests on their meat products.

The USDA has also put meat processors on notice that they must make sure that they are effectively controlling E. coli bacteria during slaughter and processing.  The USDA will be offering outreach and training for the smallest meat producers, and inspections will become more frequent at larger meat processing facilities.

In 2002, the USDA also pressured the meat industry to enact strict safeguards against E. coli, a deadly bacteria that sickens 73,000 people every year and causes 61 fatalities.   For several years, the new safety measures appeared to be working, as meat-related E. coli outbreaks and recalls declined until this year.  Critics of the USDA have claimed the agency has been too lax in its enforcement of safety procedures, and has allowed the meat industry to ignore the guidelines it established five years ago.

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