The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service requests comments on changes to its Salmonella and E. coli testing procedures for raw beef products, the agency announced.

The modified testing will be used to conduct a risk assessment and to develop new standards for Salmonella in beef. The FSIS’s action comes after a December 2011, multi-state outbreak of the disease linked to a multi-drug resistant strain that caused 19 people in the northeast U.S. to get sick. In June 2012, the agency was notified of 50 cases of Salmonella enteriditis across nine states. All were connected to ground beef consumption, according to the agency’s action.

The FSIS previously used two different testing procedures for raw beef, but has announced its intention to combine them into one. Now, the Salmonella sampling set procedures for ground beef products will be discontinued, “except in establishments with results that exceeded the standard for Salmonella in that establishment’s most recently completed sample set,” according to the FSIS’s action.

The FSIS’s previous inspection program involved the collection of random samples of raw beef that were sent to laboratories for analysis over a defined number of sequential days of production to complete a sample set, according to the agency.

The agency, however, is enhancing its procedures by combining Salmonella testing procedures with those for Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC).

“Therefore, FSIS will begin analyzing for Salmonella all samples of raw ground beef, beef manufacturing trimmings, bench trim, and other raw ground beef components that its personnel collect for STEC testing, including raw ground beef products FSIS samples at retail stores and ground beef, trim, and other raw ground beef components FSIS samples at import establishments,” the action notes.

As a result, the agency will need to take a larger sample of the raw ground beef, collecting 325 grams instead of only 25 grams, which increases the likelihood of detecting positive samples. The new procedures will be more effective compared to carcass testing, the agency said.

In addition, the agency will save money, it said. “The changes that FSIS is announcing to its Salmonella sampling procedures will permit FSIS to analyze more samples at the same time for lower agency costs than the present method,” the FSIS said in its action.

The new procedures will be conducted for three months and then used to conduct a risk assessment enroute to developing a revised Salmonella performance standard.

“FSIS is considering moving Salmonella sampling from a set-based approach to a continuous sampling and ‘moving window’ approach for all classes of products subject to FSIS sampling and testing for Salmonella,” the agency said. “This approach will allow FSIS more flexibility in scheduling and collecting samples.”

The agency is also considering extending Salmonella testing to pork trim, pork parts, ground pork, chicken parts and lamb carcasses, but would start by sampling to assess the prevalence of the disease in those products.

Salmonella bacteria are among the most frequently reported causes of foodborne illnesses, according to the agency.

Comments are due by Sept. 27, and there will be no comment extensions.