Representative DeLauro urges investigation into beef testing program

by Food Safety Monitor Staff
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WASHINGTON — Representative Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, in light of the recent E. coli outbreak in the northeast involving ground beef, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of the Inspector General calling for an investigation into the scientific merits and potential shortcoming of the N-60 testing protocol, which is a beef testing protocol used by the meat industry.
“To protect the public health, verification testing must be robust and ensure that adulterated product is not sold to the American consumers,” Ms. DeLauro wrote. “I am troubled by the shortcomings of the N-60 test and the associated food safety implications, and that is why I am requesting an investigation into the scientific merits of this beef testing protocol.”

In the letter, Ms. DeLauro said the current foodborne illness outbreak involving E. coli contamination in ground beef has resulted in at least two deaths and over two dozen illnesses in 11 states. The outbreak has been traced to a meat processing facility that employs a “test-and-hold policy.” In addition, the facility samples product every 10 minutes to 20 minutes to check for contamination, which likely is more frequent than the industry average. Despite the precautions, it was not enough to prevent contamination.

“The agency has made several fundamental changes to its position on related issues, including the definition of a ‘sampled lot,’” Ms. DeLauro wrote. “It also has shifted from emphasizing the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to cross-contaminate product to the belief that E. coli O157:H7 is a point-source contamination event. (The Food Safety and Inspection Service) provided no documentary support for this shift in several public meetings during which the N-60 protocol was discussed.”

Ms. DeLauro added that her concerns about the N-60 testing protocol may be categorized by the statistical validity of the test; the sample collection and analysis; and the application of test results.

In the course of the proposed investigation, Ms. DeLauro said she would like answers to several questions, including:

• What is the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in domestic beef trim used for raw ground beef production at processing facilities in the United States? When and how was this estimate reached? How frequently will it be re-assessed?

• What is the definition of a product “lot” used in the N-60 testing and how was this definition determined? How is this definition applied to individual processing establishments? Is this an appropriate application? and

• Has the F.S.I.S. established a protocol for reassessing an establishment’s HACCP plan based upon N-60 test results? What actions are taken at an establishment after a positive N-60 test result? FSM
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