E. coli O157:H7 control in beef production

E. coli O157:H7 is commonly found in the digestive tract of cattle and on their hide. As a result, meat can potentially be contaminated during slaughter and processing.

Because E. coli O157:H7 contamination in food can cause serious human illness, it is critical to reduce this risk during slaughter and processing, and in the home. Industry, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and consumers all have a role to play.

E. coli O157:H7 Control During Slaughter And Processing

Industry is responsible for producing safe food that meets Canada's federal standards under the Food and Drugs Act, the Meat Inspection Act and related regulations.

All federally registered meat facilities are required to have a preventive food safety control plan called a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan.

In beef slaughter and processing plants, the HACCP plan must anticipate where E. coli O157:H7 contamination may occur and outline control measures to address specific risks. The CFIA's Policy on the Control of E. coli O157:H7 Contamination in Raw Beef Products provides clear guidance to industry on the control measures required.

Federally registered beef slaughter and processing plants must also report any positive E. coli O157:H7 test results to the CFIA.

The CFIA's role is to enforce federal food safety regulations and to verify that beef slaughter and processing plants are effectively managing E. coli O157:H7 risks at all stages of production. CFIA meat inspection is based on a systematic approach called the Compliance Verification System (CVS), which focuses on areas of highest food safety risks.

CFIA meat inspectors:

  • observe and interview plant employees on the plant floor to verify if they are carrying out their activities properly (e.g. sanitizing equipment between carcasses)
  • review company records to verify if they have an effective HACCP plan and are implementing it consistently.

The CFIA also analyses the plant's E. coli O157:H7 test results and conducts its own sampling and testing for E. coli, which is over and above the plant's testing.

Preventing E. coli O157:H7 contamination during slaughter

If there is E. coli O157:H7 on the cow's hide or in its digestive tract, the carcass may become contaminated during the slaughter process. This usually occurs during "dressing," which involves de-hiding, evisceration and splitting of the carcass.

Plant employees must carefully cut the hide away from the carcass and avoid accidentally cutting through the intestines during evisceration.

During dressing, all visible fecal contamination must be removed by trimming or steam vacuuming. Beef carcasses are then decontaminated with hot water (82°C or hotter) or approved antimicrobial products.

As part of routine inspection activities, CFIA inspectors are present during the entire dressing procedure to inspect carcasses and parts, and to verify that plant employees are taking measures to prevent contamination.

If CFIA inspectors determine that these procedures were not carried out properly, they intervene to address any immediate food safety risk. Depending on the deviation, they may direct the company to trim or condemn the carcass.

If the problem is more serious, inspectors may stop production until corrective and preventative measures are put in place. The CFIA's goal is to make sure the meat is clean, and that plant management is taking action to prevent the problem from recurring. For example, plant employees may have to be trained in proper dressing or carcass washing procedures.

Preventing contamination during processing

Because it is not possible to completely remove all traces of E. coli O157:H7 from beef carcasses during slaughter, contamination can also occur during processing.

Processing includes:

  • cutting the meat into primal cuts such as steaks and roasts
  • processing into trim
  • processing into ground beef

Contamination may occur at any point as a result of improper handling by employees, or ineffective cleaning and sanitation of equipment. Every step must be carefully executed in order to prevent contamination at the next step.

To reduce E. coli O157:H7 risks during processing, the following measures are applied:

  • Plant employees must use hygienic food handling practices, such as washing and sanitizing their hands if they have touched potentially contaminated surfaces or product.
  • Equipment such as knives and hooks must be sanitized between carcasses to prevent cross-contamination. Further along in production, equipment used to produce trim and ground beef must also be sanitized on a regular basis to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Product must be kept cold during all stages of processing.

CFIA inspectors regularly observe activities on the plant floor to verify that these measures are carried out properly by plant employees. Inspectors also review company records indicating chilling temperatures and sanitation procedures.

If product comes into contact with a potentially contaminated surface or if equipment was not properly sanitized, the CFIA inspector will stop production or require that the affected meat be removed from the line.

Testing for E. coli O157:H7

Bacteria are not visible to the naked eye, so federally registered slaughter and processing facilities must test for E. coli O157:H7. The CFIA requires the testing of beef carcasses, beef trim and other raw beef material, including hearts, used to produce ground beef.

Product that tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 cannot be sold as fresh meat. It has to be subjected to cooking at a temperature of 71 °C, which destroys E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. Product cooked to this temperature is safe for human consumption.

Alternatively, product can be sent for rendering, a high-temperature process. Rendering animal carcasses or their by-products (including bone, fat and hide) produces purified fat and protein products for use in products such as animal feed, fertilizer or industrial applications.

Rendered products do not enter the human food chain. If neither cooking nor rendering are possible, product may be destroyed.

In addition, the company must track their test results for trends and indication of a potential problem. If there is a higher-than-expected number of positive tests, the CFIA requires that the facility evaluate the situation and determine if further steps are necessary (for example, diverting additional products for cooking or rendering). The company must also investigate the cause of the problem by reviewing its production procedures, sanitation and employee manufacturing practices.

Companies must report all positive results and consequent actions to the CFIA inspector. The inspector also reviews the company's testing and reporting procedures.

For additional assurance, the CFIA does its own testing for E. coli O157:H7. The frequency of CFIA testing is increased during spring, summer and fall, when cows shed more E. coli O157:H7 bacteria (April - October). Testing frequency may also be increased if the CFIA determines there may be food safety concerns.

How The CFIA Responds To Non-compliance

CFIA inspectors address issues as they occur on the production line and control product as needed. Inspectors have the authority to shut down production at any time they deem necessary in response to food safety concerns.

If a formal response is required from the company, CFIA inspectors may issue a Corrective Action Request.

The Agency may also take further enforcement action (for example, suspension of the plant's license).

Recalling Potentially Contaminated Product

If the CFIA determines that potentially contaminated product is on store shelves, a recall will be initiated by the company. The CFIA will issue a health hazard alert warning consumers not to consume the affected product.

The CFIA works with industry to ensure that the recall was effective at removing products from the market.

Most recalls in Canada are voluntary, which means that the recalls are initiated and carried out by the responsible company. However, if a company is unable or unwilling to voluntarily recall a product, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food has the power to order a mandatory recall for products that pose a health risk.

The Role Of Consumers

Canada has rigorous requirements for meat production, but even the best food safety systems cannot eliminate all opportunities for contamination. Consumers can help protect themselves and their families by staying informed about beef recalls and by following safe food handling practices at home.

Cooking ground beef to at least 71°C fully destroys E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. Consumers can also prevent contamination of other foods by ensuring that cooking surfaces and utensils are cleaned with soap and water after coming into contact with raw beef.

In the event of a recall, consumers should visit the CFIA website for a list of recalled products and check if they have any affected meat in their home. If they are unsure, they should contact the retailer where the product was purchased to verify if the product is included in the recall. If some doubt remains, consumers should not risk their health but should dispose of the product. When in doubt, throw it out!

Report any food safety concerns to the CFIA by visiting the CFIA web site (inspection.gc.ca) or calling 1800OCANADA.

More information on E. coli O157:H7 and safe food handling practices is available from Health Canada:

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