US delays ground beef E.coli test launch

Jon Condon, 10/02/2012


With an early March implementation date bearing-down on beef processors both in the US and supplier countries like Australia, US authorities have delayed the implementation of a new ground beef test for a range of additional E.coli pathogens.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service yesterday announced it would extend the implementation date for conducting routine sampling of six additional non-O157 E. coli by 90 days from its original March 5 deadline. The implementation date is now June 4.

With just weeks to go before the original March start-date, there remained great uncertainty both within the US beef industry and in offshore supplier countries as to how the policy would work.

Widespread concern was expressed in the trade over a range of unknowns and queries around how the process was to be implemented and the lack of systems to handle it. Questions were also raised about the accuracy and efficacy of the only available test procedure.

They announcement of a delay to the start of implementation for the program came as no great surprise, given the logistical constraints over laboratory capacity, availability of testing kits and transition arrangements for imported meat under the proposed program .

The move gives the entire supply chain some breathing-space to sort out the obstacles that have been raised.

Costs associated with the testing procedure also remain unclear, but it is hoped a single E.coli test can be developed to monitor both 0157, as well as the much less common variants.

The test process will not only affect US processors, but those in ground beef supplier countries in Australia, Canada, Uruguay, New Zealand and elsewhere.  

Recent meetings between the major US consumer lobby groups and the FSIS may have been the trigger-point for the postponement.

The extension will allow additional time for processors to validate their test methods and detect these pathogens prior to entering commerce.

FSIS will initially sample raw beef manufacturing trimmings and other raw ground beef product components produced from both US domestic and imported product for six additional E.coli forms – all much less commonly found than 0157.

Last September, the USDA announced it would prohibit the sale of raw ground beef found to contain those pathogens.

Problems were compounded for Australian exporters serving the US market, because of the six to eight week lag time between processing and arrival of grinding meat in the US market, presenting transitional arrangement complexities.

Currently there are a number of US market-specific trade constraints for Australian exporters, of which the additional E.coli testing process is just one. These mounting regulatory pressures have been a deterrent in some cases towards supply into the US market, given that alternate markets do not have the same requirements.

“Everyone will welcome this three-month postponement, so all these complex questions surrounding the program can be resolved,” the Australian Meat Industry Council’s Steve Martyn said yesterday.

MLA is coordinating a series of seminars on the new US testing requirements this month.


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