James Giese

GAO releases meat inspection report
The United States General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued its “Meat and Poultry: Better USDA Oversight and Enforcement of Safety Rules Needed to Reduce Risk of Foodborne Illnesses” GAO Report Number 02-902. The report states that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is not ensuring that all plants’ HACCP plans meet regulatory requirements. As a result, consumers may be unnecessarily exposed to unsafe foods that can cause foodborne illnesses. The report points out that FSIS inspectors have not consistently identified and documented failures of plants’ HACCP plans to comply with requirements. FSIS also has not ensured that plants have taken immediate action, as required under HACCP rules, to meet the Salmonella performance standards. The report claims that FSIS has made limited progress in reviewing the scientific soundness of plants’ HACCP plans. The complete report, dated August 30, but publicly released on September 19, is available online at www.gao.gov in the Daily Reports section for September 19.

USDA to require E. coli testing
On September 24, FSIS announced a series of new measures designed to reduce the incidence of Escherichia coli O157:H7 contamination of raw ground beef. FSIS claimed it was taking action based on scientific data that demonstrated the pathogen is more prevalent than previously estimated. “The scientific data show that E. coli is more prevalent than previously estimated,” Under Secretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano said. “These action steps move beyond detection of this hazard and on to preventing it.” The current action stems from December 2001, when FSIS announced that it would conduct a comprehensive review of current food safety regulations, including provisions of the 1996 Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (PR/HACCP) rule, to help improve the efficiency and accountability of FSIS programs and personnel. FSIS is also amending segments of its microbiological testing program for E. coli. Sections of an FSIS directive exempting some slaughter plants from its random E. coli testing will be eliminated. All ground beef plants will become part of the random verification testing program. Also, FSIS is considering expanding its testing program to include trimmings and carcasses in addition to ground beef. According to the USDA, the new measures will:
· Require beef slaughter and grinding plants to acknowledge that E. coli is a hazard reasonably likely to occur in their operations, unless they can prove otherwise.

· Require, based on the above assumption, plants to perform a comprehensive re-examination of their food safety systems and include a step to eliminate or reduce the risk of E. coli in their product. In the case of grinding operations, this could consist of a requirement for their suppliers to certify the utilization of a decontamination method in their operation.

· Verify through increased USDA inspection that intervention steps implemented by establishments are validated, in that they are effective under actual in-plant conditions.

· Eliminate current exemptions from FSIS microbiological testing. This will result in random testing of all beef grinding operations by FSIS personnel.

· Issue guidance to grinding facilities regarding additional prevention actions including increased plant testing for E. coli and avoiding mixing product from different suppliers to reduce the chance of cross contamination and facilitate traceback investigations.

For more details on the new measures, see the FSIS backgrounder posted online at www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/background/ec0902.htm.

FDA launches Web page for industry information
The Food and Drug Administration has launched a new portal page on its Web site to help companies easily find information they need to comply with agency regulations. The page includes links to industry guidance, import information, and inspection references, along with warning letters and other enforcement activities. The page also has interactive features for submission of questions and comments on pending regulations and includes a section for the food industry. For more information, visit www.fda.gov/oc/industry/default.htm.

FDA issues guide for imports
The FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs has announced the availability of a final guidance for FDA Field Offices entitled, “Regulatory Procedures Manual, Chapter 9, Subchapter, Import for Export.” This guidance provides procedures for FDA Field Offices regarding the handling of products offered for import into the U.S. under section 801(d) (3) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The document provides examples of documentation that will assist the FDA field offices in making a determination that the appropriate statements and information have been submitted and whether the entry should be allowed as an “import for export” or refused admission. An electronic copy of the guidance is posted at www.fda.gov/ora/compliance_ref/rpm_new2/ch9impex.html.

by JAMES GIESE
Internet Editor