Meat industry urges delay of ban on non-O157 E coli

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Dec 1, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Beef industry organizations and some US trading partners today urged the US government to delay its planned ban on non-O157 strains of pathogenic Escherichia coli in beef, saying the need is unclear and tests aren't ready, while consumer groups urged the government to forge ahead with the program.

After studying the possibility for about 4 years, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in September that it would declare the six strains adulterants in beef and that testing would begin in March. Today the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) held a teleconference to gather public comments on its implementation strategy.

During the 65-minute conference, industry groups questioned the public health importance of the program, asserted that testing will be costly, and said reliable rapid tests are not yet available.

"We believe the agency has dramatically underestimated the cost of compliance, especially for the smaller firms, said Joe Harris of the Southwest Meat Association, representing meat and poultry processors.

"We strongly urge the FSIS to delay implementation of the new policy long enough to allow the technology development to catch up," he added.

Representatives of consumer groups countered that the program will improve food safety and that the industry has had adequate time to prepare for it.

The FSIS program will cover E coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145, which together account for most non-O157 E coli illnesses. When USDA officials announced the plan to ban these strains, they cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that non-O157 strains cause about 112,000 illnesses annually, with 36,700 of those related to beef.

The USDA's current plan is to start testing for the six strains in beef trim, which is used to make ground beef, on Mar 5, 2012, and to expand testing to ground beef later. Testing of imported beef will start at the same time, Dr. Daniel Engeljohn of the FSIS said during today's conference. FSIS officials have expressed strong confidence in the tests they developed, saying they are just as good as the tests for O157.

Engeljohn said the FSIS will prepare responses to the public comments and publish it in the Federal Register after Jan 1 and before Mar 5. At that point the agency will say whether it intends to stick to the plan to test beef trim first and will explain its strategy for expanding testing to other products, he added.

Industry worries
Jim Hodges of the American Meat Institute, a trade group, opened today's public comments by asserting that the available data don't show that the non-O157 strains pose an urgent public health problem. He said only one outbreak, with three cases, has been blamed on non-O157 E coli in beef.

Hodges called for a new FSIS analysis of the industry's cost for non-O157 testing, saying, "Our initial estimates show that the cost will exceed $100 million annually for trim testing alone and may approach $300 million annually with implementation of ground beef testing."

He also argued that a "new regulatory policy" is not necessary for controlling non-O157 E coli, saying studies have shown that the steps for controlling O157 also are effective against non-O157 strains.

Barry Carpenter of the National Meat Association said the accuracy and availability of rapid tests for the six E coli strains are a major concern. Many of the existing tests yield false-positive results up to 20% of the time, which means that large amounts of meat would have to be held off the market unnecessarily, pending confirmatory testing, he said.

Todd Allen of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association contended that rapid tests for the non-O157 strains are still in the testing and validation stage. Also, he urged the FSIS to conduct a microbiologic baseline survey of the prevalence of the strains on beef carcasses in the summer, when microbial loads are usually highest. To start the program without good baseline data will lead to "unintended consequences," he said.

Consumer groups support plan
The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) was one of several consumer groups that voiced support for the FSIS plan.

"CFA strongly supports this determination by the agency," said CFA representative Chris Waldrop. "We believe it's an appropriate preventive public health approach and will prevent illnesses." He mentioned a CDC estimate that non-O157 strains caused more illnesses than O157 did in 2010.

Starting the testing in March will allow the program to make an impact in the summer, Waldrop said, adding that the beef industry has had sufficient notice of the plans.

Support for the FSIS plan was also expressed by representatives of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI), and Food and Water Watch.

CFI's Patricia Buck, however, said more information is needed on the non-O157 strains. "Many believe that these can be treated in similar fashion to O157, but FSIS doesn't have data to support that," she commented.

At the close of the conference, Engeljohn said all FSIS policies related to O157 also apply to non-O157, until there are data to suggest a need for changing them.

Exporters' concerns
The FSIS plans also prompted expressions of concern from foreign countries and groups that export meat to the United States, along with meat importers.

Chris Parker, who identified himself as an Australian embassy official, said, "STEC [Shiga toxin–producing E coli] other than O157 are not considered a major pubic health concern in Australia, and the FSIS risk profile confirms that the majority of these strains are attributed to non-beef sources. Therefore Australia questions the need" for the program.

Parker added that testing for the six strains will rely on "commercially available test kits which have not yet been validated against the FSIS methods." Consequently, he said, Australia urges the FSIS to delay the testing program until the tests can be validated.

An official with the Meat Importer Council of America said the council is very concerned that the FSIS move will discourage meat exports to the United States. Under World Trade Organization rules, he said, food safety regulations must be based on sound science, adding, "It's our view that the determination of the other six STECs to be adulterants is not justified by the data and is premature in its implementation."

Brian Read of the Canadian Meat Council voiced agreement with the American Meat Institute's concerns and called for "a more science-based approach."

"In a country where we don't see the six STECs as critically as they are viewed in the US, we'd like to exempt Canadian products shipped to the US from these rules," Reed added.

An official who said he represented a New Zealand regulatory agency also criticized the FSIS plans. "We are concerned that the determination of these STECs as adulterants is not supported by science and has real potential to disrupt trade," he said.

See also:

Sep 13 CIDRAP News report on USDA testing plan

Sep 13 USDA news release on non-O157 plan

Aug 1 Clinical Infectious Diseases study abstract on 10-year Connecticut data on non-O157 STECs

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