Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing guidance for inspectors to begin conducting routine sampling of bench trim for E. coli O157:H7. Bench trim is the fat and meat trimmed from cuts like steaks and roasts as they are prepared in processing plants. Bench trim is normally added to other meat used in ground beef. FSIS inspectors generally perform tests for E. coli O157:H7 in the slaughterhouse on most meat used in ground beef, however, bench trim had not previously been tested by the inspectors, creating a potentially dangerous hole in the government’s food-safety regimen.

According to the New York Times today, Jerold R. Mande, deputy under secretary for food safety at the Agriculture Department, said the government tests of bench trim were to begin in about a month. They are intended to verify testing for E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger that is already being done by plant operators, and many of the operators already test bench trim for the bacterium, he said. According to Mande, on average, the bench trim at an individual plant will be tested two or three times a year, for a total of 1,500 samplings nationwide over 12 months.

Hmm, only 1,500 total samples per year? Is that really sufficient to assure that our hamburger supply is safer? Had I known that the sampling would be that skimpy, I may not have said the below:

Bill Marler, a lawyer in Seattle who specializes in food poisoning cases, said that bench trim was suspected as a source of E. coli O157:H7 in many ground beef recalls. He said the new testing represented an important change. “You’re adding an additional layer of assurance that the ultimate product, the hamburger, is less likely to be contaminated,” he said.

If you are going to test for E. coli O157:H7 and actually be interested in finding it, scientifically based testing should be preformed at several points in the slaughter/manufacturing/grinding production operation. This should include testing for E. coli O157:H7 in finished product and holding it (not shipping it) at the grinding operation until the test results are returned. The testing should be done frequently enough to assure that the production operation is excluding E. coli O157:H7 from finished product.