FSIS to expand E coli testing

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Federal food inspectors plan to test for more Escherichia coli strains in beef trim starting in March by expanding scrutiny to six serogroups recently defined as contaminants.

beef cattle
(Courtesy of Keith Weller/USDA ARS)

Daniel L. Engeljohn, PhD, assistant administrator for policy and program development in the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said in early December 2011 that the agency expects to proceed with testing starting March 5 but would still accept and consider comments through Dec. 21. On Sept. 20, the agency published a Federal Register notice that, in addition to E coli O157:H7, the following shiga toxin–producing E coli (STEC) serogroups would be considered adulterants: O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145. E coli O157 was declared an adulterant in 1994.

Dr. Engeljohn made the comments during a conference call with organizations providing comments on the change. He said the President's Food Safety Working Group, which is chaired by the secretaries of agriculture and health and human services, is focused on prevention as a principle for building a modern food safety system.

"This policy on non-O157 STECs does, in fact, push forward this policy as a proactive strategy to reduce illnesses and address threats," Dr. Engeljohn said.

As meat industry organizations and the Australian government asked the FSIS to delay or reconsider the policy, human and environmental health advocacy organizations praised the agency's action and proposed start date. Australia is the second-largest exporter of beef to the U.S.

James Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, said the new regulations were "unlikely to make beef safer than it is today."

"To our knowledge, one outbreak involving three individuals has been associated with non-O157 STEC in ground beef," Hodges said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's estimates of the burden of food-borne illnesses from 2000-2008 indicate food-borne non-O157 STEC strains were connected with about 110,000 human illnesses annually, and food-borne STEC O157 strains were connected with about 63,000 annually. The September announcement from the FSIS states that most illnesses associated with the STEC strains recently declared to be adulterants "have not primarily been due to contamination of beef," but the strains have been isolated from beef.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists undercooked beef as being among the food and environmental sources of STEC. The FSIS notice indicates the agency has seen evidence that these E coli strains can survive in ground beef during ordinary cooking, that they can cause hemorrhagic colitis, and that all but O45 can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome.

Hodges said in a later interview that outbreak data provide information on risk posed by the bacteria in connection with beef. He said the beef industry is "controlling for all STECs" but targeting E coli O157:H7 because of virulence.

Dr. Chris Parker, an agriculture counselor for the Australian Embassy, said his government questions whether the FSIS actions were scientifically justified in the absence of complete studies of the prevalence of the organisms in beef. He noted that E coli O157:H7 is the only STEC considered to be a major public health concern in Australia.

Ian Jenson, manager of market access, science, and technology for the trade organization Meat and Livestock Australia, said the FSIS regulations would force changes within Australia.

"Both our commercial customers and our regulator will expect analysis of every lot of product using the methods that are equivalent to the FSIS methods," he said.

Jenson expressed doubt the STEC detection methods used by the FSIS could be used in production and said meat producers would face delays in receiving testing materials. He said in a later message those delays would increase the difficulty of comparing test methods, but he was sure facilities would be available to test beef by March 5.

Dean A. Danilson, PhD, who spoke on behalf of Tyson Foods, indicated consumers bear some responsibility for preventing infection, because thorough cooking kills E coli.

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the nonprofit advocacy organization Food and Water Watch, argued that the FSIS and the USDA Agricultural Research Service have exercised due diligence in validating detection methodology, and preventive policy is needed to mitigate outbreaks.

"While not all of the outbreaks have been directly attributed to meat products, the vectors for these strains of E coli are animal-based," Corbo said. "So the agency needs to tighten its vigilance on these strains."

Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America's food policy institute, praised the FSIS action as an important reaction to an increasing public health problem. His organization expects the March implementation will be well-timed, because the highest prevalences of E coli–related illnesses occur during the summer months.

About half of STEC infections occur during summer months, according to CDC information.