USDA Outlaws More Strains of Dangerous E. Coli

E. coli_under_microscope

There are more than 700 strains of E. coli today. Each one affects the body differently. Most are harmless while others can cause death after a long excruciating fight. The most dangerous E. coli strains are from the Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (STEC), and the most common is O157:H7. Until this week, that was the only strain the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) was requiring testing for in raw beef products. Now, after much debate and petitions, 6 more strains of STEC have been added to the list of banned E. coli. It would seem that all E. coli found in food should be banned but that just isn’t the case. It costs too much money to test for all strains.

What makes the STEC strains dangerous is that they produce a toxin that attacks the kidneys and leads to bloody diarrhea and lifelong complications from hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). Even after someone survives the initial onslaught of the infection, the person may be on dialysis for the rest of his or her life. As you would expect, the infection is most severe for children and older individuals.

On June 4, any raw, non-intact beef products found to be contaminated with STECs O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145 will be legally considered adulterated—just as the FSIS has long treated E. coli O157:H7. According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP), these 6 STEC strains account for 80 percent of non-O157 E. coli illness infections. The CDC estimates non-O157 E. coli strains cause 112,000 illnesses annually, with about 36,700 of those attributed to beef.

The industry fought hard to get this delayed but failed. The American Meat Institute (AMI) seems to be the biggest voice against the new testing program. They claim this new policy will cost too much money and in the end won’t benefit public health. Clearly the meat industry has to increase process controls and improve food safety operations in their production plants. For 30 years, the beef industry has had problems separating the beef product from the feces. It’s from the feces that these STECs come from.

Costco and Walmart disagree with AMI and commend the USDA for the expansion of E. coli testing. This is because Costco and Walmart already test for these strains in their own raw beef products. These companies understand the need to protect their consumers from foodborne illness and provide leadership in cleaning up the supply chain.

The beef industry has always been dragged kicking and screaming to improve food safety practices. Even after it took a big hit from the E. coli outbreak from Jack in the Box in 1993, the industry resisted change. It seems content to sit back and allow retailers (restaurants and supermarkets) to assume responsibility for outbreaks and then hopes none of the illnesses get tied back to the industry. The AMI is a powerful lobby in Washington and I’m amazed this new policy is finally being implemented.

The biggest voice for this new policy change came from Bill Marler. In October 2009, he filed a “Petition for an Interpretive Rule Declaring all enterohemorrhagic Shiga Toxin–producing Serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli), Including Non-O157 Serotypes, to be Adulterants Within the Meaning of 21 U.S.C. § 601(m)(1)” with the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). He even commissioned a study to establish a baseline for contaminated beef products.

Here at Respro, we have long been advocates for food retail outlets to put pressure on their suppliers to manufacture and provide safe food. Luckily, the USDA is stepping up pressure and forcing the beef industry to move out of the dark ages and commit to a safer food supply.

Originally published 6.4.12

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