USDA Considers More Changes to E. Coli Policy

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) hosted a conference last week to discuss <"">E. coli O157:H7 in beef and announced that the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) was considering treating E. coli O157:H7 found on intact meat or primal cuts, which are used for roasts and steaks, as an adulterant.  Today, this strain of E. coli is only considered an adulterant in ground beef.  The hidden issue here is that when something is made an adulterant, there are legal implications; increased responsibilities are imposed on meat processors and slaughterhouses.  Adulterated ground beef, for instance, cannot be sold in a raw state to consumers; however, a loophole—the “E. coli Loophole”—does enables such meat to be sold cooked following contamination with E. coli O157:H7.  The E. coli Loophole is a little-known practice by the USDA that allows meat companies to cook and sell once-contaminated meat.

Currently, the USDA allows companies to label E. coli-positive meat as “Cook Only” since cooking the meat properly kills bacteria.  Meat deemed “Cook Only” is processed and sold in less lucrative forms such as pre-cooked hamburgers, meat loaf, and crumbled taco meat.  The USDA does not track how much meat is labeled “Cook Only,” but amounts are believed to be significant with some estimates in one meatpacking plant averaging 50,000 pounds per week and others as high as 500,000 pounds weekly.  And while the USDA regularly conducts tests for E. coli in slaughtering plants, they only test those meats that packing companies have deemed free of E. coli.  Since meat labeled “Cook Only” is not reported to the USDA as E. coli-contaminated, higher-than-appropriate levels of E. coli are tolerated in packing plants.  This results in under-reporting E. coli contamination and placing clean meat in danger of infection.  Some inspectors blame this practice for last year’s sudden rise in incidents of E. coli contamination.

E. coli 0157:H7—Escherichia coli 0157:H7—is one of hundreds of E. coli strains, the vast majority of which are harmless.  Strain 0157:H7 is quite virulent and produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness and even death and is the leading cause of food and waterborne illness in the US.  According to Center of Disease Control (CDC) estimates, there are over 70,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occurring in the US annually with most illness linked to undercooked or contaminated meat.  E. coli is routinely found on cattle farms and in the intestines of healthy livestock.  Outbreaks occur when meat becomes tainted during slaughter, organisms contaminate the grounding process, and tainted meat is released and consumed by the public.

The FSIS is considering implementing a policy change in light of the massive increases in E. coli O157:H7-related beef recalls and outbreaks last year and is looking to reduce the possibility of contamination at retail stores or smaller processors that may use meat bits to make ground beef. Contaminated steaks can also pose a risk of cross-contaminating home kitchens.  The American Meat Institute (AMI) disagreed saying, “No policy change by government can alter the current scientific reality that bacteria exist on all fresh agricultural products.”

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