Consider six E. coli types adulterants: S.T.O.P.

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON – This past week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was urged by Safe Tables Our Priority and victims of foodborne illness to recognize six other potentially deadly types of E. coli pathogens as adulterants, in addition to the E. coli O157:H7. All seven strains are linked to human illness and are transmitted through feces-contaminated beef products, the group said.

"The U.S.D.A. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have known for decades of the public health risks posed by non-O157 strains of E. coli," said Nancy Donley, S.T.O.P. president, whose son died from the foodborne illness in 1993. "Yet, 10 years after requiring public health laboratories to report positive test results for these strains from infected people, nothing has been done to prevent meat contaminated with these strains from entering into commerce."

In 1994, E. coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant in ground beef in the aftermath of an outbreak that sickened more than 700 people and killed at least four. The C.D.C. has since identified six additional strains of shiga-toxin producing E. coli (S.T.E.C.) -- O26, O111, O103, O121, O45 and O145 — associated with severe illness and death. Just like E. coli O157:H7, these S.T.E.C. strains get into the nation's beef supply when cattle feces contaminate meat during slaughter and processing, the group pointed out.

Ms. Donley and other victim members of S.T.O.P. demanded that U.S.D.A. enact health-based strategies to prevent all types of E. coli-contaminated beef from reaching consumers' tables at a demonstration outside U.S.D.A. offices.

This includes:

• Recognizing as adulterants the six additional E. coli strains.

• Expanding the definition of adulterant to include E .coli O157:H7 when in any type of beef, not just ground beef or beef intended for ground beef.

• Implementing better ways of tracing all S.T.E.C. outbreaks to prevent widespread illness and deaths.

• Asking Congress for mandatory U.S.D.A. recall authority. All government agency food recalls are currently voluntary and issued by the companies responsible.

Producing meat that is as safe as possible is the industry’s No. 1 priority, responded James Hodges, American Meat Institute executive vice president, in a statement. “Federal inspectors are present in our plants every day to ensure we are operating in compliance with federal rules and that the technologies we use to destroy bacteria are working to ensure that only safe and wholesome products enter the marketplace,” he added.

“Our enemy is pathogenic bacteria and these bacteria respond to scientific interventions, not regulatory bans,” Mr. Hodges continued. “The food-safety strategies in place in plants today are far more effective in enhancing food safety than outlawing a pathogen that nature presents us.”

Mr. Hodges said industry has used Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans that require plants to analyze what problems might occur and then put in place ways to prevent those problems for two decades. “We believe so strongly in H.A.C.C.P.’s benefits that we petitioned the U.S.D.A. to mandate H.A.C.C.P. for all federally inspected plants,” he added. “H.A.C.C.P. became mandatory for large plants in 1998, medium sized plants in 1999 and small plants in 2000. As part of H.A.C.C.P. plans, plants use ‘hurdle strategies’ that are like roadblocks for bacteria throughout a plant. No other industry has the level of regulation and inspection as the meat industry.”

Technology does not exist yet to guarantee eliminating E. coli O157:H7 in raw agricultural products, including ground beef, “but we are getting close,” Mr. Hodges said. Government data show industry has made great progress, he added.

“According to U.S.D.A., the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 on raw ground beef has declined by 63% since 2000 to a prevalence rate of one-third of 1%,” Mr. Hodges said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show those human cases of E. coli O157:H7 from all sources – not just meat – have declined by 44% since 2000. Government estimates show that three illnesses per 100,000 population occur each year from the consumption of nearly 10 billion lbs. of ground beef. That is an occurrence of one illness per 5 million servings of ground beef, which is far lower than many other foods we consume.”

E. coli O157:H7 is considered an “adulterant” in non-intact beef products, such as ground beef, which means if the pathogen is found, the product cannot be sold and if it is in the marketplace it must be recalled. “Some groups have raised concern about another strain of E. coli called non-O157 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli or “non-O157 S.T.E.C.s,” Mr. Hodges said. “It’s important to note that there have been no known outbreaks of non-O157 S.T.E.C.s associated with meat products in the U.S.”

Consumers should be assured that the highly-effective interventions currently in place to control E. coli O157:H7 will also destroy non-O157 S.T.E.C.s, Mr. Hodges continued. “If a regulatory change could destroy bacteria, we would be lobbying for it,” he said. “But changing a bacteria’s legal status won’t make it disappear. Only preventative food-safety technologies will destroy pathogens. And the final food-safety step — cooking ground beef to 160°F – works equally well against various strains of E. coli and a host of other bacteria, in the event that they are present on meat.

“We share the frustration of those who argue for a regulatory change because the industry also wants to eliminate pathogens on all meat products,” Mr. Hodges added. “We spend millions of dollars annually to achieve that goal. We simply believe that science and technology offers a better solution than regulatory bans that won’t eliminate the pathogen.

“Finally, we ask consumers to keep in mind that the industry benefits by selling food that is as safe as we can possibly make it and we will continue to look for new and better scientific strategies to improve meat safety,” he concluded.

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