Food safety officials are gearing up for E. coli season, the period each year when the potentially deadly bug starts to show up more often in ground beef.
Running from April through September is what scientists call "high-prevalence season" for E. coli 0157, a toxin-producing bacteria that can cause kidney failure and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as 70,000 people may be stricken by E. coli every year.
"We're really two weeks away from that seasonal event in which we likely are going to begin finding a greater number of positives," said Daniel Engeljohn, a food technologist and deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Scientists still do not fully understand the phenomenon but suspect it is related to the warmer weather.
"[It] may be an indication that the production practices in place may have been designed to control a level of contamination throughout the winter months. But as we go into the warmer months, the level of contamination tends to increase, that gets through the system," Engeljohn said.
The USDA, he said, expects producers to "increase and intensify their controls during this season."
In the run-up to E. coli season, the USDA this week took a step toward improving the government's testing of ground beef to help prevent another deadly outbreak.
Its Food Safety and Inspection Service announced that government inspectors at ground beef processors would be testing more samples, more often to look for the bug.
Inspectors will now take beef samples up to four times a month -- 48 times a year -- at plants that produce more than 250,000 pounds a day and less frequently at smaller plants. Last year, they collected only 24 samples from each producer.
"FSIS [the Food Safety and Inspection Service] is increasing sampling at high-volume ground beef establishments because these establishments produce product that is most widely consumed," the agency's announcement read. "The increase in sampling will allow the agency to estimate the amount of uncontaminated raw ground beef with a higher degree of certainty."
The move is the latest in a series of changes implemented since 2007, when 40 people were sickened and 22 million pounds of Topps brand frozen ground beef patties were recalled because of E. coli. Before that, the agency focused as much attention on small producers as it did on the large -- despite the fact that larger producers pose a wider risk to the population. Since then, the USDA has shifted to a risk-based approach that focuses more resources on large plants.
Nancy Donley, whose son Alex died in 1993 at the age of 6 after eating a tainted hamburger, applauded the move as a "positive step in working towards a more scientific approach to ensuring a safer food safety supply."
After the death of her son, Donley founded the group Safe Tables Our Priority and was instrumental in pushing the USDA to improve what had been low-tech and low-frequency standards for E. coli testing. In 1994, inspectors tested only 5,000 samples. This year, they'll test 12,000.
But in an industry that processes millions of pounds of beef each day, some outside groups that watch the government's food safety efforts say that still falls short.
"Four tests per month at the largest plants is still not enough when these plants may be making upwards of 1 million pounds of ground beef per day," said Felicia Nestor of Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit organization that advocates smaller-scale agriculture. "They can choose the small portion of that which will be tested. These plants make more ground beef in one day than many of the smallest grinders make in 10 years."
Bill Marler, an attorney who has become an advocate for food safety reform since he represented victims of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993, called the testing regimen a poorly designed "exercise in hunting for a needle in a very large haystack."
"As the FSIS has been operated to date," Marler wrote on his blog, "the agency and the meat industry share an equal interest in not finding E. coli O157:H7 in plants because it proves both entities to be failures. So the politics of testing is all about creating PR for the appearance of more stringent testing that is in fact not more stringent at all. Increased frequency does not, by itself, mean increased stringency."
In response to that assessment of his agency, Engeljohn said, "I would disagree with that."
He said the USDA "cares very much" and, in addition to increasing testing and focusing more on the highest-risk plants, has now stepped up its inspection of "trim" -- what the beef is called before it is ground into hamburger meat.
Food and Water Watch's Nestor acknowledged the testing of trim is a positive change that "may allow the government to identify and remove more dangerous ground beef from the market than it does today."
But Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and author of several books about food safety, said this new testing standard -- any testing standard -- "only works if the plant owners are serious about finding things."
She cited Earthbound Farms, a vegetable grower that overhauled its testing after an E. coli outbreak that killed three people and sickened 200 was traced to its produce.
"Earthbound Farms, for example, hired a really good microbial consultant to develop sampling procedures that would catch most problems," Nestle said, noting that catching all of them is impossible. "They have a defined set-in-advance procedure for sampling, testing and holding and they do this when the greens come in and again before they leave."
Some in the beef industry, she says, are reluctant to submit to that degree of scrutiny.
"Hamburger, which has a much higher probability of contamination, needs even more than this, and that means testing and holding every lot until it comes back negative. Of course, they don't want to do this."
Engeljohn agreed there is resistance on the part of some processors to hold beef off the market during the two to three days it can take for test results.
"There are many who would say that this is such a highly perishable product," Engeljohn said. "But the risk of what happens if you release that product and it turns out to be positive causes there to be some significant consequences to that. So we the agency would not agree with anybody who would say it's not practical or feasible."
The USDA does not require manufacturers to hold the beef until tests come back. But the agency did warn after the 2007 outbreak that if the industry didn't voluntarily change, the agency would issue new rules forcing its hand, Engeljohn said.
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.