We just might be witnessing a watershed change in USDA attitudes regarding testing for E. coli O157:H7, corrective actions subsequent to adverse lab test results, and tracebacks to the true source of contamination.  

Due diligence must be addressed these next 12 months to monitor USDA/FSIS’ willingness to implement meaningful reforms as suggested by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).  Public revelation by OIG of faulty FSIS meat inspection policies should provide the required incentive to FSIS to not only author policies that better promote public health, but to also be more transparent.

The following comments will serve as my brief response to OIG’s audit report, and to FSIS’ response to OIG’s recommendations.  

In the middle of page one, OIG states “….regardless of how stringently the industry tests for E.coli, there is always an inherent risk of its presence in slaughter plants” (emphasis added).  

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In this Audit Report, OIG makes references to the fact that E. coli contamination emanates from hides and viscera.  OIG is thus refreshingly candid, acknowledging that E.coli originates on kill floors, not at downstream entities that do not have manure-covered hides or intestines on their premises.  If FSIS had made this common-sense admission years ago, and had focused its search for E. coli at the source, rather than the destination, the number of outbreaks would have been greatly diminished compared to what we continue to currently experience. 

 

On page two, the Audit Report states “We also found that FSIS needs to consider shifting more of its testing resources to sampling trim, instead of [sampling] ground beef, for E.coli.”  This is not ground-breaking news to FSIS.  On Dec. 5, 2006, an industry meeting was conducted in Denver regarding control of E. coli O157:H7 in slaughter operations.  At the meeting, Dr. Daniel Engeljohn (FSIS official) stated that the agency would commence testing trim in 2007 because the incidence of E. coli is three times greater in trim than in ground beef.

FSIS has known this fact for over five years now. 

 

OIG also stated “A recent study stated that trim testing has a higher probability of finding E. coli O157:H7 than ground beef testing.”  OIG further stated that FSIS should “… begin testing more trim so that it can (1) maximize its [testing] results, (2) better promote public health, and (3) trace contamination problems to the source.”  This is but yet another disciplinary rejoinder to FSIS that if it truly desires to promote public health, it must write policies enabling tracebacks to the SOURCE of contamination.  

Folks outside the industry do not fully comprehend why testing trim, rather than ground beef (as OIG suggests), would benefit public health, requiring an explanation.  The report states on page 14 that one reason FSIS has sampled more ground beef (than trim) is “….agency officials are responding to the public’s expectation that it will test ground beef, as the final product, for E. coli O157:H7.” 

The report also says that FSIS officials have stated “….they want to achieve an optimal balance between sampling costs and protecting public health.”  This FSIS statement flies in the face of OIG’s previously mentioned conclusion that testing trim promotes public health.  

In a legal brief a few years back, Dr. Engeljohn stated that the agency prefers to test meat as close to the consumer as possible. 

This statement has great PR benefits to the agency, which is thus portrayed as the quintessential, aggressive 24/7 protector of all consumers.  What FSIS slyly avoids revealing is the fact that such testing is conducted as far away from the source slaughter plant as possible.  

Testing ground beef downstream, rather than trim at the source slaughter plant, insulates source slaughter plants from pathogen accountability.  It also minimizes the threat of potential legal actions against FSIS from source slaughter plants impacted by exposure of the true origin of contamination.  While testing ground beef has some advantage to public health, the primary beneficiary of testing ground beef downstream is the source slaughter plant upstream.

So, how did FSIS respond to this OIG suggestion?  On page 16, the “Agency Response” is “If necessary changes are identified, FSIS will develop proposed changes…..”  Clearly, FSIS will not acknowledge the necessity of changing testing to primarily focus on trim.  Furthermore, FSIS has established a deadline of April, 2013 to reveal changes.  Not only is FSIS disputing OIG’s suggestion to primarily focus testing on trim, but has given itself almost a full year to devise a stratagem to circumvent OIG’s common-sense recommendation.

Page 20 of the OIG Report includes two scenarios of which I was unaware, and should cause heads to roll at the agency. The two scenarios are:

“Additionally, while we were visiting the plants, we noted that plant managers sometimes exploit ambiguities in FSIS’ sampling policies or procedures so that they can avoid receiving noncompliance records if FSIS inspectors find a positive E. coli O157:H7 test result.  

For example, FSIS allows plants to avoid a noncompliance if they have a written policy in place to send bins [of tested trim] to cooking that FSIS samples from and finds E. coli.  One plant quality assurance manager told OIG that the plant had implemented a policy to send every bin to cooking that FSIS samples, so that it could never receive a noncompliance due to FSIS’ testing results.   

OIG maintains that FSIS should eliminate this policy ambiguity because noncompliance records trigger more serious enforcement actions and require corrective action that would improve how the plant controls E. coli.”  

The primary problem here is that while OIG perceives the need for corrective actions when a plant experiences recurring E. coli positives, FSIS sees no need for corrective actions.

As if the first scenario isn’t embarrassing enough, OIG reveals this second scenario on page 20: “A second policy ambiguity involves FSIS allowing plants to avoid noncompliance if an FSIS test and a plant test both result in a positive on a single sample.”

This logic is stupefying:  although trimmings tested by both FSIS and the plant both come back positive, removing all doubt of lab accuracy, FSIS implements no enforcement actions at the clearly noncompliant source slaughter plant.  

When company-conducted testing reveals the presence of E. coli, the impacted lot is diverted to a cooking plant, same as is done when E. coli is detected in FSIS-conducted testing.  Such diversions conveniently circumvent the need for corrective actions to prevent recurrences, a foundational requirement of true HACCP.  As such, the source slaughter plants and FSIS jointly place sole emphasis on prevention of SHIPMENT into commerce of contaminated meat, blithely ignoring ongoing PRODUCTION problems that are sanitary dressing failures on the kill floor.

When contaminated meat is detected, and diverted, FSIS congratulates the slaughter plant exclaiming “Your HACCP Plan is working!”  No NRs, and no corrective actions, although recurring lab positives prove ongoing sanitary dressing failures.

Pretty nifty, eh?

These policies are unconscionable, imperil public health and adroitly avoid the need for corrective actions to prevent recurrences.  Perhaps OIG is
only now realizing how FSIS has covertly abrogated its responsibility to protect consumers from foodborne outbreaks.  FSIS and the slaughter plants are equal accomplices in such sinister, scurrilous policies … which have not been transparent.

Bottom line:  all adverse lab reports deserve individual NRs.  FSIS refusal to issue NRs at source slaughter plants in spite of recurring lab positives imperils public health.  Corrective actions to prevent recurrences cannot be accomplished by diversion to cooking.  Meaningful corrective actions can only be accomplished on the kill floor, not by a sleight of hand, i.e., diversion.  FSIS disagrees.

On page 25, OIG’s Recommendation 7 to FSIS states in part “Improve communication by issuing guidance to industry to assist plants in selecting laboratories based on the capabilities of the testing laboratories.”  The agency’s response included a link to policy guidance announced on March 8, 2012.  Utilizing this guidance, I proposed an idea to the USDA’s Front Line Supervisor in Montana in April, which if approved would clarify FSIS expectations of small plants’ procedures to contract with outside labs.  

The Front Line Supervisor forwarded my suggestions to askFSIS on April 17.  As of Saturday, May 19, askFSIS had not yet provided an answer to Montana’s Front Line Supervisor.  When askFSIS was implemented, many plant owners and I sent questions to askFSIS.  Some received quick responses.  Unfortunately, most responses were delayed, were confusing, and some answers delicately skirted the issue.  

As a result, most plant owners with whom I visit no longer use askFSIS, for obvious reasons.  When the agency cannot even respond to a Front Line Supervisor within a month, we start to grasp how FSIS uses askFSIS as a PR front, but is frequently useless.  The agency’s refusal to provide meaningful answers, in an expedited fashion, also shows the agency’s bias against small plants.

I respectfully suggest that OIG should investigate askFSIS, which if it is the agency’s primary outreach to small plants, should be jettisoned and replaced by a group that will be held accountable.  

In conclusion, a popular industry mantra about eight years ago was that “We can’t test our way to safe food.”  I agree.  Testing alone doesn’t produce safe food.

Instead, consistently efficacious sanitary kill floor dressing procedures produce safe food. 

Testing can produce SAFER food, but only if adverse lab results lead to meaningful corrective actions to prevent recurrences.  Contents of this OIG report reveal that FSIS intentionally avoids issuing NRs subsequent to recurring lab positives for E. coli O157:H7.  

How frequently can a slaughter plant experience lab positives?  Page 36 of the OIG report refers to a plant which experiences 7, 15, 48 or more positives in one day.  The recent FSIS Traceback suggestions reveal that depending on a slaughter plant’s size and number of samples it takes daily, the plant could experience 5 – 8 percent or more positives before the agency will commence even considering whether these high numbers of positives might constitute a “High Event Period.”  Such thinking reveals the hypocrisy of the agency’s alleged “Zero Tolerance” standard towards E. coli O157:H7.  

Therefore, FSIS has knowingly enacted policies (some ambiguous and non-transparent) insulating slaughter plants from implementing corrective actions after E. coli O157:H7 is detected in their meat.  The same policies have effectively thwarted traceback attempts, with full FSIS endorsement.

Rather than giving FSIS almost a year to correct these inane practices, the agency should be forced to testify before the appropriate entity no later than June 15 to explain if OIG’s allegations are correct, and implement initial changes within two months.

  

John W. Munsell is manager of the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE) in Miles City, MT

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Photo of John Munsell John Munsell

John Munsell ran a USDA-inspected meat plant for 34 years, which had been in the family for 59 years. Raised in Miles City, Montana and educated at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT, John returned to the family business subsequent to employment at Continental Oil and Target Stores. Having sold the business in 2005, John subsequently opened a deli/bakery at a local retail grocery store, and is currently employed by Miles Community College as a Biofuels/Renewable Energy Coordinator. Married, with two daughters and six grandchildren, John’s passionate focus has been to reveal institutionalized shortcomings in USDA’s deregulated meat inspection program, and to protect the rights of small plants to remain in business in the absence of unethical government enforcement actions.