Less than ten years ago, E. coli O157:H7 was in the news almost daily.  Indeed, each year, tens of millions of pounds of raw ground beef were being recalled by industry because of the presence of this harmful bacteria. In 2007 and 2008, there were nearly 50 recalls involving E. coli O157:H7 in nearly 50,000,000 pounds of product.

In recent years, however, industry has driven the numbers of ground beef recalls for the presence of E. coli O157:H7 or non O157 STECs (“E. coli”) to almost nothing.  Moreover, very few of the lingering products occasionally being recalled are associated with illness.

At the same time industry is seeing a decrease in the levels of E. coli in raw beef products, however, studies are demonstrating that E. coli continues to exist and spread naturally in the farm and feedlot environment. E. coli can spread between animals, through the outflow of water, by the use of untreated manure, through the passage of transient animals or by migratory birds. So, if the presence of E. coli is persisting to at least some extent in the environment, what is industry doing which is so effective at controlling the bacteria?

For starters, harvest establishments have a better understanding of how E. coli transfers in the harvest environment, and are improving dressing procedures to address that threat. In turn, most processing establishments are also far more careful in selecting reputable suppliers to harvest their raw trim. Additionally, FSIS is encouraging establishments to adopt High Event Period (“HEP”) programs that require all raw trim from a discrete production period to be diverted whenever the number of E. coli positives exceed a certain threshold. But, is there more that harvest establishments should be doing?

Yes. Even in those cases where the number of positive samples do not constitute a HEP, many establishments are nevertheless diverting their trim combos produced immediately before and after any single combo that tests positive, even if those combos test negative. This way, establishments are casting a wider net, and containing any potential contamination that may have spread to other combos but avoided detection.

The beef industry has done an incredible job engineering additional food safety into raw animal products.  As establishments continue  to excel at eliminating E. coli, I predict that the numbers and types of recalls will continue to remain a distant memory.