Since then, he added, "there's been tremendous progress by the industry to hold production lots."
"But still, the largest number of recalls that we had in the year 2008 were for E. coli, and the majority of them were because the production lots were not held."
But at the end of the day, Engeljohn said, the USDA is not capable of and does not try to test to make sure that every single lot of beef is free of E. coli.
"The number of samples that you would need to collect to have some statistical confidence that if it was contaminated you would find it is in the hundreds," he said. "I mean, it is a lot of samples that need to be collected. At $20 to $100 a sample, you have to make some decisions as to what you can afford."
Instead the onus is on the processor.
"It is the establishments' responsibility to have safe products, and they are expected to have data to demonstrate that every production lot is safe," Engeljohn said. "We are there to just verify that by spot checking. That's what our sampling program is."
For consumers, the only sure-fire way to make sure ground beef is 100 percent safe is to cook it thoroughly.
On a related note, the USDA recently approved the first E. coli 0157:H7 vaccine for use in cattle.
Minnesota-based Epitopix announced Feb. 26 that it had received conditional approval, contingent on some additional studies, that allows the beef industry to begin using the vaccine immediately.