WASHINGTON – One good indicator of the presence of additional strains of E. coli is sampling ground beef for E. coli O157:H7, which is what the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service currently does, said James Hodges, American Meat Institute executive vice president. Hodges made this statement in connection with a public meeting to discuss USDA’s plan to declare six additional strains of E. coli as adulterants when they are found in raw ground beef products or beef intended for grinding.

USDA plans to begin testing for these strains in March.

“In-plant food-safety technologies do not discriminate; they destroy all strains of E. coli,” Hodges added. “USDA is proposing a solution in search of a problem.”

FSIS’s Draft Risk Profile included as part of the policy announcement is appropriately named as a “draft” because it is incomplete and includes significant data gaps identified by scientific experts, Hodges said. Scientific expert comments included in that profile highlight the knowledge gaps, he said:

  • “We found no consensus in the scientific community about precisely which features, or virulence factors, make an STEC harmful to humans.”
  • “…due to lack of baseline data, we cannot make definitive quantitative statements about the national prevalence or the likelihood that pathogenic STEC serogroups may be found in either cattle or ground beef.”

The final determination published in the Federal Register by FSIS also raises questions about the new policy:

  • “As we have stated, control for E. coli O157:H7 already in place should be as effective in controlling non-O157 STEC as in controlling E. coli O157:H7.”
  • “We note that the illnesses associated with these strains have not primarily been due to contamination on beef.”
  • “It is not clear whether on net there will be a reduction in the number of illnesses.”

The absence of an accurate and comprehensive cost estimate for this new policy was also cited by Hodges. “Given the many questions surrounding both its potential effectiveness and its costs, implementation should be delayed until a more thorough analysis is conducted and more is known,” he said.

He suggested that considering the scientific concerns raised within the Federal Register notice and by expert reviewers in the Risk Profile, spending millions on a policy with little likelihood of improving public health while cutting USDA’s food-safety research program is ill-considered.