USDA Announces Zero Tolerance E. Coli Policy

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just announced a zero tolerance E. coli policy that is intended to ensure that U.S. beef is safer to eat.

The announcement came hand-in-hand with an initial report issued by the Food Safety Group, which was convened two years ago, led by the White House, and staffed by agencies from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and USDA, said WebMD. The new rules, which take effect in 2012, consist of the following:

  • Declare beef testing positive for a shigella toxin-producing E. coli bacteria as both “adulterated” and unfit for sale. Today, this rule only covers one strain of the potentially deadly E. coli pathogen, although other strains account for 112,000 illnesses annually.
  • Initiate a “test and hold” policy for beef, which means that selected beef lots will be held from market until testing confirms them free of germs and drug residues; today, beef testing positive for bacteria or contaminants must be recalled. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), had the “test and Hold” policy been in place 2007 – 2009, 44 recalls would have been prevented.

“We have improved food safety in the last two years,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking at a news conference, WebMD reported. “Our new standards for poultry establishments may prevent as many as 25,000 food-borne illnesses each year.” Vilsack was referring to the FDA’s 2009 egg safety rule implemented to help prevent Salmonella.

The FDA expects its rule to prevent egg-related Salmonella sicknesses by 60%, which translates to 79,000 illnesses yearly, said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the same news conference. “We are well on our way to building a modern food safety system,” Sebelius said. “Millions in the U.S. still suffer from food-borne illnesses each year. Thousands are hospitalized and too many die. Too often we find ourselves trying to track down the source of an outbreak once it happens rather than preventing it,” Sebelius added, according to WebMD.

E. coli symptoms show up within one-to-eight days and there are hundreds of strains with many found in humans and animals and some classified as shigella-toxin producing E. coli. These are very dangerous, even deadly.

Some E. coli strains are needed for digestion. Those that are harmful, deadly, and toxin producing, may cause severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, and bloody stool. Most seriously, kidney failure and death may occur. For instance, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) is a serious disease in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail, affecting about 10% of E. coli sufferers. Infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.

Other adverse effects, some long-term and serious, include Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and a form of reactive arthritis called Reiters Syndrome. Some victims require kidney transplants and may have scarred intestines that cause lasting digestive difficulty and some patients who supposedly recovered, can experience long-term health problems. E. coli can also cause disease in the brain, seizures, coma, or blood clots in the brain.

Salmonella poisoning can lead to headache, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, fever, and loss of appetite, with the most prevalent symptoms occurring within in six hours and lasting up to three days.

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