USDA samples a lot of beef to test for E-coli O157:H7, but a report from the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) suggests more testing could be needed.

During 2011, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) analyzed 12,422 ground beef samples, 1,267 trim samples, 677 bench trim samples, 1,024 retail samples, and 228 other raw ground beef components for E. coli. Most of that sampling takes place in federally inspected slaughter plants on ground product or trim intended for grinding.

According to the OIG report, lack of sampling for boxed whole-muscle cuts that could be ground at “downstream” processors and for tenderized beef products, could pose enough risk to justify additional testing.

The report, titled “FSIS E. coli testing of boxed beef” notes that intact cuts of beef such as steaks and roasts pose little risk of food-borne illness since any surface contamination with E. coli is destroyed in cooking. Ground beef or other non-intact products have greater potential for causing illness since the bacteria could be mixed throughout the meat where improper cooking could result in exposure.

In its audits of processing plants, the OIG found FSIS and the plants tested product that was designated as ground beef or trim destined to become ground beef, but they generally did not test boxed beef product. However, downstream processors or retailers sometimes grind these whole cuts to produce ground round, ground chuck or ground sirloin, and because the boxed beef bears the USDA inspection seal, they could assume it is pathogen-free. So, OIG concludes, some portion of products used for ground beef is not subject to FSIS inspection, and recalls of that type of ground product have occurred.

The report also notes FSIS does not sample tenderized whole-muscle cuts for E. coli testing. Some of these cuts are tenderized with mechanical processes such as “needling” or a combination of needling and marinating. The OIG maintains these processes could push bacteria into the interior of the meat, raising the risk of illness if the meat is undercooked. FSIS believes that risk is relatively low, although they have developed a proposed rule that would require new labeling for mechanically tenderized product, urging consumers to fully cook the meat.

The OIG offers several recommendations for evaluating risk, addressing gaps in sampling and improving reporting procedures. The recommend FSIS reevaluate procedures for sampling boxed beef product as bench trim and suggest conducting an assessment of the risk associated with untested boxed beef and store-generated bench trim that is being ground in retail establishments.

If FSIS determines there is a significant risk associated with grinding of boxed beef and store-generated bench trim in retail establishments, OIG recommends they develop a specific plan to implement a program to sample and test bench trimmings that are ground in retail establishments, including reallocating FSIS’ limited testing resources to include beef trim as well as final product at retail establishments.

The OIG offers similar recommendations for tenderized products, suggesting first a risk assessment, followed by a detailed plan for testing those products if the assessment finds significant risk of consumers becoming sick from mechanically tenderized beef.

The full report is available online from the Office of Inspector General.