WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today that it is taking new steps to fight E. coli and protect the safety of the American food supply. Six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli will be declared adulterants in non-intact raw beef. Raw ground beef, its components, and tenderized steaks found to contain these bacteria will be prohibited from sale to consumers.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will FSIS will begin testing for these six serogroups of STEC and enforce the new policy on March 5, 2012.

As a result of today's action, if the E. coli serogroups O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 are found in raw ground beef or its precursors, those products will be prohibited from entering commerce. Like E.coli O157:H7, these serogroups can cause severe illness and even death, and young children and the elderly are at highest risk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies these particular serogroups of non-O157:H7 Shiga-toxin producing E.coli, or non-O157 STEC, as those responsible for the greatest numbers of non-O157 STEC illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States.

"The Obama Administration is committed to protecting our food supply and preventing illnesses before they happen," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Today's announcement does exactly that by targeting and eliminating contaminated products from the market. Too often, we are caught reacting to a problem instead of preventing it. This new policy will help stop problems before they start."

"The impact of foodborne illness on a family can be devastating," said Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen. "Consumers deserve a modernized food safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats. As non-O157 STEC bacteria have emerged and evolved, so too must our regulatory policies to protect the public health and ensure the safety of our food supply."
Vilsack said the additional testing for E. coli will cost USDA an estimated $500,000 to $750,000 annually.

The American Meat Institute (AMI) opposes the change, predicting it will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars and is unlikely to yield a significant public health benefit.

“It is also concerning that this major announcement is not coupled with a public health risk assessment, which is ordinarily the basis for good public health policy, “said Jim Hodges, AMI Executive Vice President.  “Instead, USDA has drafted a paper detailing their ‘reasoning’ because they admit they don’t have the data they need to do a proper risk assessment.”

Bo Reagan, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association senior vice president of Research, Education and Innovation and chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo) membership organization issued the following statement regarding the announcement.

 “The members of BIFSCo have long had a commitment to provide the foundation for producing a safe and wholesome food supply. This is consistent with our industry’s history and our long-term efforts to continually improve. The industry has come together to gain knowledge and close gaps in science because to our industry, safety is not a competitive issue.”

FSIS said it expects to begin the non-0157 STEC program by analyzing raw beef manufacturing trimmings and other ground beef components.

By testing those products first, the agency believes it can offer an “immediate measure” of public health protection commensurate with its regulatory requirements.

Eventually, FSIS plans to test ground beef, hamburger, and beef patty products for STEC. 

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