By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Some ground beef may evade USDA testing for E. coli bacteria due to a lack of clarity in agency protocols, according to an internal audit.
Insufficient testing of boxed beef resulted in past outbreaks of E. coli 0157:H7, a pathogenic strain of bacteria that causes severe gastrointestinal illness, according to the agency's Office of Inspector General.
The audit found that large processing plants properly tested beef trim that was intended for use in ground beef, but usually didn't test boxed beef that's generally used for cuts like steaks and roasts.
Such cuts are considered to pose a smaller risk of illness because their surfaces -- where the bacteria is mostly found -- are subject to high temperatures during cooking.
However, some smaller processors who buy boxed beef end up grinding some of it, allowing untested meat to enter the ground beef supply, the audit said.
"Establishments downstream receive such boxed beef bearing the USDA mark of inspection and may assume that it is pathogen free and, therefore, safe for grinding; however, the product was seldom considered eligible for testing for E. coli," the audit said.
According to auditors, grinding of untested boxed beef caused E. coli outbreaks that sickened 35 people in 2008 and 24 people in 2009, collectively leading to a recall of about 1.7 million pounds of beef.
Officials from the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service said that boxed beef should be tested but they "did not adequately convey their intention to FSIS inspection personnel in the plants," the audit said.
Auditors said they spoke with FSIS inspectors at several plants who were confused about whether boxed beef is eligible for E. coli testing prior to grinding.
Downstream processors also seldom tested boxed beef "due to either the expense involved to do the testing or product freshness issues in waiting for results," the audit said.
In response to the audit, the FSIS has agreed to re-evaluate its procedures and clarify its policy for inspectors to ensure boxed beef will be tested if it's intended for grinding.
The agency also said it would improve its oversight of grocery stores and other retail establishments that aren't required to rest for E. coli and develop a risk assessment for tenderized beef products, which aren't tested.
The audit also contained recommendations for record-keeping and sampling programs, to which FSIS also agreed.