E-coli testing costs to consumers

Sep 23, 2011

USDA’s plan to test for six more food pathogens has the meat industry wondering where the money will come from. Obviously a hot topic, opponents believe there will not be enough benefit to outweigh the expensive tests soon to be required by USDA.

USDA has been testing for the common O157:H7 pathogen for over 17 years. The six they plan to add have been found in food in recent years, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says they cause an estimated 110,000 illnesses annually.

Currently, it is not illegal to sell fresh meat or poultry containing bacteria like salmonella, which are killed by thorough cooking, industry experts say. Nevertheless, since the 1994 outbreak involving hamburgers served at Jack in the Box restaurants, regulators have treated E. coli O157 differently.

When it is found in processing, it is diverted to products that must be cooked before sale.

In recent years, scientists have found that several other strains of E. coli in food also are making people sick, and they identified the six most potent, called the Big Six non-O57s. Press reports indicate that USDA has been considering extending its ban on sales of bacteria-contaminated fresh meats to those additional strains for the past four years, so the news did not come as a total surprise.

When USDA adds the six new forms to its adulterant list, it will make it illegal to distribute any food containing the pathogens, which brings up an important difference between USDA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). With FDA-inspected food plants, it is already illegal to sell products containing “dangerous” bacteria, including toxic forms of E. coli or other substances. However, meat and meat products are under the jurisdiction of USDA.

While several outbreaks caused by the Big Six strains have been linked to produce, only one has been related to ground beef, and that outbreak included three people.

Without more science-based proof that the Big Six are a huge threat to consumers, the meat industry is left in the hot seat, wondering about the financial end.

“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.

In addition, meat processors warn it will cost consumers more, and say the scientific evidence just isn’t there.

“Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars—costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers. It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy,” Hodges said.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s desire to eliminate non-O157 Shiga toxinproducing E. coli (nSTEC) from the U.S. beef supply is

something the beef industry strongly shares. But USDA’s announcement today declaring six strains of naturally occurring nSTEC to be adulterants in ground beef is premised upon the notion that the government can make products safe simply by banning a pathogen,” according to Hodges.

“This new policy is not supported by science and likely will not benefit public health,” he added.

Hodges points out that USDA’s notice acknowledged that ‘we do not know how many illnesses will actually be prevented.’ CDC estimates that 48 million food-borne illnesses occur in the U.S. annually and E-coli from all food sources account for 112,000 illnesses. “Federal resources are being devoted only to nSTEC in beef products that account for less than 0.1 percent of total food-borne illnesses. While we all wish that number were zero, considering that more than a billion servings of ground beef are consumed annually, that is an excellent safety record,” Hodges added.

While the meat industry is questioning the validity and financial end, USDA and FDA are touting the consumer benefits.

“The Food and Drug Administration applauds US- DA for taking this action to better protect consumers,” said FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Mike Taylor. “We are committed to working with FSIS [Food Safety and Inspection Service] to prevent diseasecausing non-O157 STEC bacteria in all foods. Through implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, FDA will continue to place prevention at the core of the efforts to improve the food safety system.”

Health scientists are also supportive of the change. According to CDC, E. coli strains other than O157:H7 cause nearly 113,000 illnesses each year, and onethird of them they say are attributed to tainted beef. But, until recently, few of those cases were reported, according to CDC, because most medical labs were not equipped to test for the less common forms.

While the new rule changes the federal protections, it still does not include all forms of toxic E. coli. For example, the strain of the bacteria that caused dozens of deaths in Europe this summer from contaminated sprouts is not one of the Big Six. To date, it has not caused any known sicknesses in the U.S. USDA did state that it is “possible” that other pathogens could be added in the future.

As it appears, USDA is planning to take several significant steps to ensure that a number of dangerous pathogens are eliminated, although it does seem somewhat strange that USDA feels it is premature to ban the extremely virulent strain that hit Europe last year.

FSIS will begin testing for the Big Six and enforcing the new policy on March 5, 2012. They invite interested persons to submit comments within 60 days of their original publication in the Federal Register.— Traci Eatherton. WLJ Editor