USDA to expand testing to reduce E. coli in beef

WASHINGTON Fri Jul 31, 2009 6:46pm EDT

Hemorrhagic E. coli in the process of dividing, mag. 2575x, is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Newscom/Handout

Hemorrhagic E. coli in the process of dividing, mag. 2575x, is seen in this undated handout photo.

Credit: Reuters/Newscom/Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department said on Friday it will increase testing parts of steaks and other meat cuts used to make ground beef as the government steps up efforts to reduce the spread of E. coli bacteria in food.

USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) said it was issuing guidance for meat inspectors to begin testing of so-called bench trim for E. coli, which the department has not routinely done in the past.

FSIS will also be issuing new instructions to its personnel for inspection, sampling and other actions to reduce E. coli O157:H7 in beef.

An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The actions we are taking today will result in safer food in our country, which means healthier children and less costly healthcare," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

E. coli can cause diarrhea and dehydration in people. Children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems are the most susceptible.

Separately on Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines for growers and producers aimed at reducing or eliminating contamination in leafy greens, tomatoes and melons.

"We expect the guidelines we are putting out ... will be followed by enforceable standards," said FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg during a forum on food safety near the U.S. Capitol.

The guidelines recommend ways to prevent minimize microbial contamination from when tomatoes, melons and leafy greens are grown and harvested through processing, shipping and consumption.

Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said consumers also play a role in food safety -- "use common sense. Start there." Fresh fish should be refrigerated promptly, she said, and produce should be rinsed before it is sliced.

The USDA and FDA announcements stemmed from measures proposed by a working committee created by the Obama administration to improve the safety of the food supply.

This month, the panel, headed by Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius, proposed tougher steps to curb salmonella and E. coli contamination in food.

The U.S. food supply has been battered by a series of high-profile outbreaks of illness involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts and spinach since 2006.

Consumer groups, lawmakers and the Obama administration have demanded an overhaul of the antiquated food safety system and reform of FDA.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that would give the FDA the power to order food recalls, require all facilities to have a food safety plan in place, increase the frequency of food inspections and expand FDA access to company records.

(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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