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AMI Foundation and NMA Host Well-Attended Briefing Aimed at Confronting Challenge of E. coli O157:H7

Thursday, January 24, 2008

(American Meat Institute)

The American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF) and the National Meat Association yesterday hosted a briefing in Washington, DC, to confront the challenge E. coli O157:H7 poses to the beef industry.

Nearly 150 industry members, academics and government officials shared information about E. coli O157:H7’s incidence in beef and in other foods and the pathogen’s impact on public health.  Experts also detailed recommended best practices for E. coli  control during slaughter and processing, as well as lotting, sampling and testing best practices that can help track and retrieve product when necessary.

AMI President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle opened the briefing by detailing the progress that the industry has made over the last two decades in enhancing beef safety, but acknowledged that trends in 2007 gave the beef industry pause.  A slight up-tick in E. coli  O157 incidence in ground beef represented a departure from the sustained declines that have been observed since 2000.

“We all share a common goal:  to produce the safest beef possible,” Boyle said.  He noted that given the industry’s food safety track record, “Much is expected of industry, and rightfully so.  We are eager to meet those expectations.”

USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond, M.D., said USDA is redoubling efforts to ensure meat safety through actions including enhanced sampling programs and a new more sensitive test method to detect E. coli  O157:H7.  Despite many questions surrounding the cause of the uptick in E. coli O157, Raymond said “I don’t believe the industry got complacent.”

He detailed the agency’s use of “Public Health Alerts” to convey information when insufficient details are known to recommend recalling a specific product.  While he acknowledged that these alerts have been controversial, he indicated that the industry can expect them to be used periodically going forward.

Raymond detailed USDA’s agenda to turn the trend, he also offered reassurance:  “It’s not a disaster.  People should not be afraid to eat ground beef.” 

Centers for Disease Control Chief of the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch Patricia Griffin, M.D., offered a detailed examination of the epidemiology surrounding human cases of E. coli O157, as well as consumer food safety behavior.   While she did not have foodborne illness trend data for 2007, she said she was not expecting major changes and predicted that the trends would be “close to the status quo.”

A panel of industry experts representing a cross-section of industry segments detailed industry best practices that have been successfully implemented to reduce E. coli O157 in beef products.  The best practices have been developed through a collaborative effort with the Beef Industry Food Safety Council and are updated periodically.

Guy Lonergan, Ph.D., gave an extensive review of pre-harvest research to reduce colonization and prevalence of E. coli  O157 in beef cattle.  While Dr. Lonergan highlighted very promising pre-harvest technologies, representatives of USDA and FDA gave an overview of the approval and licensing procedures for drugs and vaccines that are a major hurdle in rapid implementation of pre-harvest technologies.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Vice President of Issues Management Rick McCarty presented data showing an increase in consumer concern about beef safety in the Autumn of 2007 following intense beef safety and recall-related media coverage, but showed  data collected in January 2008 indicated that confidence returned as intense coverage eased.

McCarty also said NCBA data indicate that despite federal and industry recommendations that consumers use instant-read thermometers to validate cooking temperatures, only 17 percent do so.  He also said that the majority of consumers rely strongly on visual cues to determine doneness, despite the fact that these visual cues are not accurate indicators of doneness.

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