USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is running a series of tests on cattle, hog, chicken and turkey carcasses with the objective of resetting pathogen testing baselines. Among the specific baselines that need to be addressed are those for beef trim, other beef components, bench trim, ground beef and chicken parts, say USDA officials.

These baselines are used to determine the industry’s process control capability, FSIS Deputy Assistant Administrator Daniel Engeljohn, told participants at a an E. coli O157:H7 prevention seminar presented by the North American Meat Processors Association.

When USDA first issued Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points’ regulations in the mid-1990s, it created baselines for nine classes of pork, poultry and beef carcasses and used that data to establish pathogen performance standards.

To create the beef baselines this time, USDA will take one sample immediately post-hide removal but prior to decontamination interventions and evisceration, reports A second sample will be taken post-chill after all decontamination interventions have been done, but prior to fabrication. The tests will baseline pathogen reductions achieved by current industry practices. For cattle, earlier tests were performed only post-chill, so adding the pre-decontamination test will provide new data to update performance standards. For trim, other beef components, bench trim, ground beef and chicken parts, the tests will create new standards.

For hog and poultry carcasses, the new tests will reset the previous performance standards, Engeljohn said. It will take about a year to complete the baseline testing. USDA has already started on hogs and plans to start on cattle at the beginning of 2011.

Engeljohn also told the group that USDA is getting more aggressive in its reaction to pathogen contamination. He cited an example, that USDA may recall more products earlier in the game when a presumptive positive for E. coli O157:H7 at a further-processing facility is traced back to a particular slaughter plant.

This is a change from its earlier practices, which did not focus on recalling additional products made by a slaughter facility implicated in a single recall.

Going forward, he said when a presumptive positive for E. coli O157:H7 is found at a grinding establishment, once supplier data is gathered, Enforcement Investigations and Analysis Officers will immediately assess the available data on the supplier.

EIAOs will then assess the plant, using new methodology to determine whether the affected product lot, and others using the same source material, the same conveyor belts and same equipment are no longer considered microbiologically independent.

If EIAOs determine microbiological independence is no longer valid and insanitary conditions are evident, affected products will be subject to voluntary recall-- and so might associated source material, such as primals and sub-primals as appropriate.

Engeljohn said USDA plans to publish details of its new traceback methodology quickly so the new procedures will be in place for the April through September when warmer weather often increase pathogen positives.