USDA to Begin Testing Meat for 6 More E. coli Strains

We often report on dangerous foodborne pathogenic outbreaks and poisonings, often concerning E. coli. And, as we’ve written, many E. coli strains can be found in humans and animals, with some very dangerous, even deadly.

While the government heavily regulates E. coli O157:H7, many nonO157 strains have never been monitored, although they do cause serious illnesses. The six of most concern are E. coli 026, 0103, 0111, 0121, 045, and 0145. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, some 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths are linked to these pathogens annually.

The government has finally relented and will be broadening its testing of E. coli in meat, said The Associated Press (AP). It is hoped this move will quicken recalls and help identify foodborne illness origins sooner. Non-E. Coli O157 strains, said the CDC, are responsible for about 110,000 illnesses each year.

For now, said the AP, meat companies will begin testing the six additional E. coli strains in beef trimmings, which are part of what ends up in ground beef. The testing will commence in March and could expand to other meats.

The meat industry, not surprisingly, criticized the move, citing costs. “USDA will spend millions of dollars testing for these strains instead of using those limited resources toward preventive strategies that are far more effective in ensuring food safety,” said James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, reported the AP.

In 1994, E. coli O157:H7 was classified by the USDA as an adulterant, which means that increased testing and quicker recalls could be implemented if the pathogen was found in food, noted the AP, there has been a push for the current administration to classify the six strains as adulterant. The classification was delayed due to White House reviews, but the recent European outbreak of a never-seen-before E. coli strain, prompted the push. That new strain is not included in the six strains being tested.

“We are gratified that the Obama administration finally put public health ahead of industry interests by giving the USDA the authority to take action against these other pathogens,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, the AP reported.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just announced that the six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli will be declared adulterants in non-intact raw beef. This includes raw ground beef, its components, and tenderized steaks. When these items are found to contain these bacteria, sale to consumers will be prohibited. The USDA noted that, like E. coli O157:H7, these serogroups can lead to serious illness and death, with young children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised being more seriously at risk.

These particular serogroups of nonO157:H7 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, or non-O157 STEC, are responsible for the greatest numbers of non-O157 STEC illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States, said the USDA, citing the CDC. Testing will being on March 5, 2012.

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