I spoke to Jeff Gold, AP writer, this afternoon during a break in mediations.  His story, just hit the wire:

Report: Topps Plant Reduced Inspections

In the months before issuing a massive recall of its frozen hamburgers, Topps Meat Co. curtailed testing of ground beef and skipped other safeguards aimed at preventing contaminated meat from reaching consumers, according to a published report Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the USDA on Tuesday announced more steps it was taking to protect the public from E. coli infections from beef. Recent outbreaks have reversed a steady decline that began in 2000.

The new effort should probably reduce E. coli contamination, said William D. Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food-borne illness, including several who have sued Topps.

However, Marler added, “I’m still perplexed as to why, after all these years, they weren’t doing this.”

After the USDA/FSIS phone conference today, FSIS announced:

“FSIS Takes Aggressive Actions To Combat E. Coli O157:H7”

Key initiatives targeted to federally inspected plants that produce raw beef products include:

  • Testing and analysis of trim. Based on preliminary data from the agency’s beef trim baseline and scientific literature indicating that contamination of trim is related to contamination of ground beef, FSIS began trim testing in March 2007, not waiting for final analysis of the baseline. By testing earlier in the production chain to identify contaminated beef trim intended for ground beef, FSIS prevents this source from contaminating the ground beef available to consumers. This also gives the agency more data to analyze in determining and implementing the most appropriate actions to reverse upward trends.
  • Verifying control of E. coli O157:H7. FSIS notified the beef industry that, as of November, all beef plants will be expected to verify that they are effectively controlling E. coli O157:H7 during slaughter and processing. The agency also provided the industry specific examples of minimum controls that would meet the minimum criteria for a “well-controlled” process. Identifying which establishments achieve the minimums, and which establishments do not, will provide FSIS the critical information on establishments with vulnerabilities.
  • New checklist for verifying control. FSIS inspection program personnel will review both suppliers and processors based on a new checklist, once they complete specialized training beginning the week of Oct. 29. Data from the checklists will be completed in November and will be updated quarterly to help the agency more quickly identify significant changes in plants’ production controls and ensure the company takes corrective action. FSIS will analyze the checklist data and use it to adjust programs or policies as needed.
  • Testing more domestic and imported ground beef components. FSIS will begin testing materials that are used as components in raw ground beef, in addition to the beef trim already tested, which is the primary component. FSIS is also requiring countries whose beef is imported to the U.S. to conduct the same sampling or an equivalent measure.
  • More rapid recalls. FSIS now takes into account a broader, more complete range of evidence when evaluating whether to seek a recall or take regulatory action. This gives the agency a credible approach to more rapidly taking action when certain types of evidence are available. In two recent cases, FSIS acted upon epidemiological evidence that linked illness to opened, FSIS-inspected product found in consumers freezers.
  • Targeting routine testing. In January 2008, FSIS will begin routine targeted sampling for E. coli O157:H7 at slaughter and grinding facilities. Currently, all plants have an equal chance of being tested. Under this new verification testing program, FSIS will test larger volume operations more frequently than in the past. Data from the checklists will be used to determine testing frequency for establishments.
  • Ensuring safety of imported beef products. FSIS notified countries that export raw beef product to the U.S. of new policies and programs and is working with them to ensure they implement the same or equivalent measures to protect the public from E. coli O157:H7 risks.

Although the above programs are good, one wonders why USDA/FSIS had not implemented these years ago or at least six months ago when the E. coli spike happened.  The Consumer Man, Herb Weisbaum and I spoke today about the USDA taking new steps to curb E. coli contamination:

As for reaction to the USDA proposal, Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who handles the bulk of the E. coli cases in the country and who has been one of the USDA’s chief critic, calls this “a positive step that could make a significant difference.” But he adds, “this should have been in place a long time ago.”  If the USDA’s new meat safety program is going to work, Marler says there needs to be serious enforcement: “I hope USDA has the willpower and manpower to do that.”