USDA testing for non-O157 E coli to start with beef trim

Sep 13 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) move to ban the most common non-O157 strains of Escherichia coli from ground beef will start with testing of beef trim destined to become ground beef, followed sometime later by testing of actual ground beef, the agency said today.

In a news release and short press conference today, USDA officials confirmed the news that leaked out yesterday about the plan to ban six non-O157 strains from ground beef, beef trim, and tenderized steaks. Testing of beef trim for E coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145 will begin in March 2012.

"We'll begin testing beef trim initially because that's where we get the biggest bang for our buck," said Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for food safety. She said keeping the E coli strains out of beef trim will be efficient because slaughterhouses typically ship trim to multiple grinding facilities.

The agency will study the results of beef trim testing before expanding the program to ground beef, Hagen said. Plans call for keeping the public informed of the process and publishing a Federal Register notice before taking the next step, she added.

In announcing the step today, USDA officials described it as part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to improve prevention of food contamination and combat emerging microbial threats.

"Too often, we are caught reacting to a problem instead of preventing it," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. "This new policy will help stop problems before they start."

"This is a really significant step for American families and for everybody who consumes ground beef in this country," Hagen said at the press conference.

Vilsack said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that non-O157 E coli strains cause 112,000 illnesses annually, with the six strains targeted by the USDA accounting for most of them. And of those 112,000, an estimated 36,700 are believed to be related to beef, he said.

The USDA move complements efforts already under way in the beef industry, Vilsack said, noting that Costco recently established testing for the "big six" non-O157 strains as a requirement for its ground beef and that BPI has begun testing for the strains.

In response to a question about the pathogenicity of the six strains, Hagen said, "They possess the same molecular arsenal as O157, the same virulence factors." Like O157, the strains can cause hemorrhagic colitis and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be fatal, she said.

Hagen and Vilsack expressed strong confidence in the tests the USDA will use to detect the E coli strains. The USDA has been considering banning the pathogens for about 4 years, and the need to develop reliable tests was cited as one of the reasons for not acting sooner.

"We're absolutely confident in the methodology we have developed," Hagen said. She added that the agency has satisfied its two key criteria for the tests: that they will be just as sensitive and specific as the tests used for O157 and just as fast. "We're able to report negative results in the same amount of time as we can do with O157," she said.

The time factor is important because meat facilities have to hold tested product lots until the test results come back, she noted.

Reports yesterday said products found contaminated with any of the E coli strains will be diverted for use in products that are cooked before sale.

Vilsack and Hagen commented that the pathogenic E coli strains can survive "ordinary cooking" and that the infectious dose is very low. Unless meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 160ºF, the organisms can survive, Hagen said.

Vilsack estimated the cost of the testing program to the USDA at $500,000 to $750,000 annually.

The USDA announcement drew praise today from at least two consumer protection groups, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

"The U.S. has achieved some notable progress in controlling one form of E coli and there is every reason to believe that the action banning six additional virulent forms of the pathogen will provide additional improvements," the CFA said.

The group said the plan by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to initially test beef trim rather than ground beef itself is designed to "attack the problem at the earliest point of FSIS's legal authority and to prevent the dispersal of adulterated product. This structure means that FSIS testing will begin first in the large slaughterhouses that supply small processing companies with the basic elements that they then turn into ground beef. This should reduce the burden on small companies. . . ."

The CSPI said the six non-O157 strains have caused at least 10 outbreaks involving nearly 700 illnesses since 1998, but did not specify how many of those were linked to beef. The group said the costs of the testing program are reasonable, putting them at half a million dollars annually for the USDA and less than $5 million annually for the meat industry.

The CSPI said the USDA should now ban antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella in meat and poultry, in line with a petition the group filed with the agency earlier this year. At the press conference, Vilsack declined to comment on the status of USDA deliberations on that issue.

Yesterday the American Meat Institute criticized the justification for the USDA plan, saying only one outbreak involving a non-O157 E coli strain has been clearly tied to ground beef.

The CFA said meat industry associations tried to stop the USDA from banning the six strains and added that they may try to get Congress to reverse the action.

See also:

Sep 13 USDA press release

Sep 13 CFA statement

Sep 13 CSPI statement

Sep 12 CIDRAP News story, "USDA to ban six non-O157 E coli strains in ground beef"

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