USDA publishes ground beef traceability rule

Ground beefThe US is tightening up its traceability requirements for ground beef to help clamp down on foodborne illnesses.

The new final rule will require all producers and retail outlets that use ground beef to keep a record of the source of the raw material, including the registration numbers for suppliers held by the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), as well as lot numbers and production dates.

They will also have to keep a record of the date and time each lot of raw ground beef product is produced and when grinding equipment and other related food-contact surfaces are cleaned.

Importantly, the new rule also stipulates that producers or retailers must indicate when material is carried over from one production lot to the next. It is not unusual for retailers to combine beef purchased specifically for grinding with other whole-muscle beef products that may have hit the end of their shelf-life, which can make traceability a tougher proposition.

"FSIS has often been impeded in its efforts to trace ground beef products back to a supplier because of the lack of documentation identifying all source materials used in their preparation," notes the final rule.

Two earlier proposals - to keep a record of the weight of source materials and the names and phone numbers of suppliers - have been dropped on the grounds that inclusion would provide little additional safety benefit but would increase the red tape for producers.

According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 422 outbreaks of food poisoning attributed to ground beef between 1998 and 2014, killing 11 people and hospitalising another 587.

Last year, more than 13 tonnes of ground beef tainted with Escherichia coli 0157 - a particularly virulent foodborne pathogen - were recalled on a single day.

E coli 0157 in beef has caused 80 outbreaks between 2003 and 2014, killing five people and hospitalising 300 more - although the CDC believes the true incidence could be more than 20-times higher as food poisning incidents are chronically under-reported.

The US population consumes a staggering 4.6 billion pounds of ground beef each year, equivalent to around 9.5 million cows.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock / Vipavlenkoff

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