September 18, 2003



US Meat Safer From E. Coli This Year


The U.S. Agriculture Department has announced on Wednesday that ground beef products now have a much lower rate of E. coli infection than last year food. This, the USDA said, because of closer inspection of U.S. beef plants, and the withdrawal of large quantities of meat last year.


"The agency's sampling data suggests that initiatives begun in the past year are beginning to pay dividends," said Garry McKee, administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service


4,432 beef samples which were tested in the first eight months of this year, showed that 0.32 percent tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, down from 0.78 percent from 2002.


E. coli 0157:H7, typically contracted through contaminated food or water, can cause bloody diarrhea, vomiting and cramps. The bacteria is destroyed when meat is cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.


But some consumer advocates remain doubtful of USDA's findings.


"Before I believe USDA's conclusions, I would want to look at their numbers ... and make sure that there wasn't any funny business," said Felicia Nestor, food safety director for the Government Accountability Project.


Earlier this year, the USDA found that most large U.S. beef plants did not meet federal food safety requirements for preventing E. coli 0157:H7 contamination.


In response, it ordered plants to reassess their food safety systems and add an extra safeguard against the bacteria. The department also ended a program that exempted some beef plants from random testing.


USDA Undersecretary Elsa Murano said the department has reviewed more than 1,000 beef plants and the majority have made "major changes."


The USDA said there were 45 meat recalls for the first eight months of this year, down from 76 recalls in the same period last year.
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