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USDA to expand E. coli tests to non-O157 STECS

by Joel Crews
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WASHINGTON – As part of what the US Department of Agriculture considers the next step of ensuring the safety of the public from E. coli-related foodborne illness, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the addition of six serogroups of non-O157:H7 shiga-toxin producing E. coli (nSTEC) that will be considered adulterants, in non-intact raw beef, including ground beef and tenderized steaks. The six E. coli serogroups include: O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145. As adulterants, if product represented by tested samples of raw beef contains any of the six strains it will not be allowed into commerce for sale to consumers.

As of March 5, 2012, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will test beef trim used in ground beef production for the six serogroups of STECs and begin enforcing the new policy. USDA plans to initially focus testing on beef trim production before it is distributed to grinding facilities. It hasn’t ruled out expanding the program in the future.

“If found, sale for consumption by people will be prohibited,” Vilsack said. “One of the reasons we are doing this is because these pathogens can survive ordinary cooking.”

USDA also based its decision to focus on the non-O157 strains on information from the Centers for Disease Control, which has determined these strains are responsible for more than 112,000 foodborne illnesses annually, “twice the rate of O157:H7, which was already declared an adulterant, over the period of many years,” Vilsack said. Among those 112,000 illnesses, USDA estimates 36,700 of them are attributable to beef consumption. He went on to say illnesses linked to non-O157 strains of E. coli have nearly tripled over the past decade, while O157-related illnesses have decreased by 27 percent during the same period.

The additional testing protocol calls for using samples that are already being taken to test for other pathogens, in what the agency hopes will be a streamline and efficient part of processors’ current test-and-hold protocols. Vilsack pointed out Beef Products Inc., Dakota Dunes, SD, began voluntarily testing for the six non-O157 STECs this past summer as part of its “hold-and-test” program. Meanwhile Costco recently began requiring its ground-beef suppliers to conduct the additional testing. Cost for the testing, which Vilsack estimated at $500,000-$750,000, will be paid for from the FSIS budget.

Questioning the USDA’s reasoning, James Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, responded to the announcement, saying: “Perspective on this issue is badly needed.” He pointed out that the estimated 100,000-plus human infections of nSTEC have been caused by a variety of foods, not just beef. Rather than spending millions of dollars testing for the six additional strains, Hodges pointed out that science indicates technology proven to destroy E. coli O157:H7 are equally effective against all strains. Furthermore, the presence of the six targeted strains in beef are not linked to widespread illness, he said.

“The public health data, including data released by the CDC last week, indicate that there is no public health crisis related to those strains in ground beef,” said Hodges. “While CDC has documented hundreds of thousands of foodborne illnesses throughout the past decade, only one nSTEC outbreak has been definitively linked to a beef product and that involved three people who recovered.”

“From the first days of this administration, food safety has been a priority,” Vilsack said, because it saves lives and it saves on medical expenses while keeping people productive. Vilsack, who co-chairs the Food Safety Working Group established by President Obama, said this latest action is consistent with the group’s efforts over the last several years to improve food safety. Those efforts focused on meat and poultry processing operations have included requiring additional testing of bench trim used in ground beef production; improving performance standards in the poultry industry; establishing a public health information system to identify risks earlier; and coordinating a systematic response program for product recalls.

Vilsack said the development of the new policy was consistent with the process that was used when the USDA declared E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant after the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1994. The agency announced a 60-day comment period on the new policy, which is published in the Federal Register. It welcomes input on the notice, including feedback on implementation and outreach efforts.
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