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USDA Expands E. Coli Testing

Apr 10, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is planning to begin testing ground beef and ground beef component samples for non-O157 Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli (STECs) to determine whether to declare them contaminates. 

Officials from USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that the agency will test those samples that test positive and those that test negative for E. coli O157:H7; however, production lots will not be recalled, seized, or detained in those cases where the samples only test positive for non-O157 STECs and that this data is being generated for study purposes at this time.

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 United States.  According to Center of Disease Control (CDC) estimates, there are over 70,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occurring in the U.S. 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 USDA will issue a public notice announcing a start date for this testing once that has been finalized.  FSIS Deputy Assistant Administrator Daniel Engeljohn said the agency will assess the testing data "over a limited timeframe sufficient to ascertain the general likelihood of the presence of selected non-O157 STECs.  Based on the evidence that we develop from our testing, as well as other available evidence, we will decide whether to declare selected non-O157 STECs to be adulterants."

Elizabeth Hagen, FSIS executive associate for Public Health, said testing will focus on six groups of E. coli bacteria:  026, 0111, 0103, 0121, 045 and 0145.  These groups are responsible for 75 percent of non-O157 illnesses.  Hagen also said the true incidence of non-O157 human illness is difficult to define due to limited awareness and uneven surveillance.  Worldwide outbreaks have been linked with a variety of non-food and food vehicles, including meat and, while USDA has not yet decided to declare the non-O157 STECs adulterants, Engeljohn outlined the process if the agency does.  If non-O157 STECs are declared contaminates the agency would:  Define applicable products from slaughter/dressing and further processing operations, issue a Federal Register Notice via interpretive rule, establish an effective date that ensures sufficient time to address seamless implementation for both domestic and imported products, issue compliance guidelines and policy implementation instructions, train FSIS inspection personnel, and conduct outreach to the regulated industry.

Regarding the announcement and expected fall-out from the anticipated controversy, FSIS Under Secretary Richard Raymond said, "You certainly may hear things you don't agree with…  Progress won't occur if we're just wanting to avoid discomfort by maintaining the old status quo. The E. coli bug is obviously not satisfied with the status quo and neither should we be."

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