Food safety officials tweak Salmonella testing process

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Sam Robinson/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

The Food Safety and Inspection Service announced changes to the process it uses to detect Salmonella in ground beef.  The changes apply to the methods used to determine which facilities will be tested, as well as the size of samples collected.

Despite changes, ground beef that tests positive for Salmonella can still enter the food supply and will not be subject to automatic recall.

The proposed changes aim to bring Salmonella testing standards in line with those established for E. coli. Testing will no longer be based on a tier system. 

All ground beef that is tested for E. coli, will also be tested for Salmonella. Food safety officials expect this will increase the number of facilities involved in Salmonella testing and help prevent Salmonella outbreaks linked to ground beef.

The changes also expand which beef products are subject to testing for Salmonella.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture entry in the Federal Register states: “FSIS will begin analyzing for Salmonella all samples of raw ground beef, beef manufacturing trimmings, bench trim, and other raw ground beef components that it collects for Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) testing.”

STEC is a group of pathogens commonly referred to as E. coli and is frequently linked to foodborne illnesses in humans. E. coli O157:H7 is the serotype of the STEC strains often associated with food recalls.

Changes to the Salmonella testing process includes provisions to increase the tested beef sample from 25 grams to 325 grams.

Sam Robinson / Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Changes to the Salmonella testing process includes provisions to increase the tested beef sample from 25 grams to 325 grams.

As part of the changes, the sample portion of ground beef for Salmonella testing will increase considerably. Under current standards, inspectors are required to sample 25 grams of ground beef, which is a relatively small portion of the total number of pounds of beef produced in a plant each day. Changes would require 325 grams of ground beef to be tested for Salmonella, the same amount as E. coli sampling. The larger sample will be more representative of the larger batch of ground beef.

However, food safety officials did not announce changes to the current reporting system that allows ground beef that tests positive for Salmonella to enter into the food supply. Unlike E. coli, which USDA has declared an adulterant to ground beef, Salmonella-positive ground beef is only recalled if it is linked to a human illness.

Salmonella is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the meat and poultry industry.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service has been using three category, risk-based system to determine which ground beef manufacturers would have to test for Salmonella and how often the testing would take place. That system was implemented in 2006 for larger producers.

Facilities that did not meet standards were tested more often than those with a clean slate.

Per FSIS standards: Category-1 facilities included those that had Salmonella test results equal or less than 50 percent of the standard in its two most recent samples. Category-2 facilities had at least one of its two most recent tests show results greater than 50 percent of the standard, but did not exceed it. Category-2 facilities also include those that failed the most recent test, but pasted the one just prior. A subcategory (2T) was formed for facilities transitioning from category 2 to 1. Category-3 facilities are those in which the current Salmonella tests results exceeded the standards for its product class.

FSIS has determined these Category-3 facilities pose the greatest risk due to the lack of proper pathogen controls. Therefore, Salmonella and E. coli testing was done more frequently in these facilities.

Salmonella testing was done independently and not with E. coli testing. In 2008, food safety officials expanded the inspection process to include facilities producing less than 1,000 pounds of ground beef per day.

The public comment period opened in late August and will continue through the end of September.

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