USDA to ban six non-O157 E coli strains in ground beef

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Sep 12, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided to ban six non-O157 strains of Escherichia coli in ground beef starting next March, according to unofficial reports, a move that pleases food safety groups but frustrates some in the meat industry.

The USDA had not yet issued a public announcement at this writing, but the decision was reported by the New York Times and other media outlets and was confirmed by industry and food safety groups. Late today the agency announced plans for a press conference tomorrow.

The six strains to be classified as adulterants are E coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145, the reports said. E coli O157:H7 is far better known and more common than any of the six strains alone, but as a group, the six have accounted for a growing share of E coli illnesses in recent years, while the number of O157 cases has been declining.

Last year, for example, non-O157 E coli cases were slightly more common than O157 cases in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) FoodNet surveillance system, which gathers foodborne disease reports in 10 states.

The system found 1.0 cases of non-O157 illness per 100,000 population, versus 0.9 cases per 100,000 for O157. CDC officials have said the increase in non-O157 cases probably reflects the growing use of Shiga toxin tests, which detect all strains of Shiga toxin–producing (pathogenic) E coli.

"This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time," said Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, the USDA's under secretary for food safety, as quoted in the Times report. "We're doing this to prevent illness and save lives."

The ban will apply to ground beef, beef trim that goes into ground beef, and machine-tenderized steaks, the story said.

The USDA has been considering banning the six strains for about 4 years. The move has been delayed in part because of concerns about the availability of reliable tests for the strains and in part because of meat industry concerns, according to previous reports.

The American Meat Institute (AMI), an industry group, today questioned the scientific and public health justification for the USDA decision.

In a statement, the AMI said science shows that the technologies used to destroy E coli O157 are equally effective against other strains. "Now, however, USDA will spend millions of dollars testing for these strains instead of using those limited resources toward preventive strategies that are far more effective in ensuring food safety," the group said.

The USDA is estimating that the ban will cost the meat industry up to $10 million a year for testing and for diverting any contaminated meat to cooked products, the Times report said.

The AMI said further that there is no public health crisis related to non-O157 E coli in ground beef. Only one non-O157 outbreak has been clearly linked to ground beef, and the three people sickened in the outbreak all recovered, the statement said. It apparently referred to an outbreak of E coli O26 reported in August 2010, which prompted a recall by a ground beef producer in Pennsylvania.

"There have been many other outbreaks linked to other foods, non-USDA-regulated," Janet Riley, the AMI's senior vice president for public affairs, told CIDRAP News.

News of the USDA decision was applauded by Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney who has long urged the agency to take the step. "In the long run, this is good for public health," he told CIDRAP News.

In October 2009 Marler filed a petition asking the federal government to classify the six additional E coli strains as adulterants in ground beef. In 2010 his firm hired an independent lab to survey retail ground beef for E coli contamination. In 5,070 samples, 86 positive E coli samples were found, including 30 that were among the six non-O157 strains.

Marler said the FSIS move appears to signal a willingness to expand the definition of "adulterant" to pathogens that cause human illness.

He credited Hagen for keeping a focus on the problem with non-O157 E coli strains in ground beef and for pushing the issue to the forefront in 2007, which led to a key meeting in October 2007 with experts and officials at the USDA. He said other experts and groups, such as those from the University of Minnesota and within the beef industry, are unsung heroes in the effort to get the strains banned in ground beef.

Marler said that though the USDA's ban took longer than expected, it appears that the agency has pushed forward with a solid case that will likely hold up to any legal challenges and that it has taken steps to reach out to industry. "Hopefully, this will avoid a more ugly battle in the courts. That's not the best way to form public policy," he added.

News of the USDA move was also welcomed by Food & Water Watch, a consumer group, which released a statement by its executive director, Wenonah Hauter.

"Food & Water Watch has supported this policy change since 2007," she said. "The USDA first sent a proposal to change the policy in January 2011, but it had been stuck in the Office of Management and Budget due to intense pressure by the meat industry to block it."

"While the new policy will not take effect until March 2012, we are gratified that the Obama Administration finally put public health ahead of industry interests by giving the USDA the authority to take action against these other pathogens," Hauter said.

The Times story said the USDA does not plan to ban non-O157 strains other than the six most common ones, but Hagen said the list of banned pathogens may grow further in the future. The large E coli epidemic centered in Germany this summer involved an O104 strain.

See also:

Jul 18 CIDRAP News item about trend in E coli infections

Nov 2, 2010, CIDRAP News item about USDA steps

Aug 30, 2010, CIDRAP News item about E coli O26 cases linked to ground beef

Jul 21 CIDRAP News story discussing complexities of tracking trends in O157 and non-O157 E coli infections

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