The government body's Food Safety and Inspection Service affirmed a 43.3 per cent drop in the percentage of ground beef samples infected with Escherichia coli O157:H7 in 2004 compared with the previous year.
This means that of the 8010 samples collected and analyzed in 2004, 0.17 percent tested positive for E coli, down from 0.30 in 2003, 0.78 in 2002, 0.84 in 2001 and 0.86 in 2000. hence, between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of positive samples in FSIS regulatory sampling has declined by more than 80 percent.
Most strains of E coli, a common inhabitant of the gut of warm-blooded animals, are harmless. However the strains such as E coli O157:H7 can cause severe foodborne disease and are referred to as enterohemorrhagic E coli (EHEC).
The designation 'O157:H7' refers to specific molecules that are found on the cell surface that distinguish it from other strains of E coli.
"The reduction in positive E coli samples demonstrates the continuing success of our agency's strong, science based policies aimed at reducing pathogens in America's meat, poultry and egg products," said acting FSIS administrator Dr. Barbara Masters. "Improvements in regulatory oversight and training have paid dividends, and we are committed to building on this strong foundation."
The FSIS ordered all beef plants in 2002 to reexamine their food safety plans, based on evidence that E coli is a hazard reasonably likely to occur. Plants were required to implement measures that would sufficiently eliminate or reduce the risk of E coli in their products.
The organisation then sent in scientists to assess the food safety plans, to see how scientifically valid they were and to compare them with general daily practice. The FSIS found that the majority of the plants had made major changes to their operations including the installation and validation of new technologies designed to combat the pathogen and had increased their testing for E coli O157:H7 in order to verify their food safety systems.
The total number of samples collected in 2004 increased by more than 21 percent, added the FSIS, which has also worked with inspectors and compliance officers during the last 12 months to help ensure they are fully up-to-speed.
January saw the launch of a rapid detection system designed to minimise the risk of the pathogen in the food chain. It was heralded for its potential to speed up the identification of E coli and reduce costs for the meat industry.
Manufacturer Innovative Biosensors said the new technology - developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - can detect E coli O157:H7 in less than five minutes compared to current systems that can take up to 48 hours.
Infection with E coli serotype O157:H7 was first described in 1982. Subsequently, it has emerged rapidly as a major food pathogen and can result in severe complications in humans ranging from hemorrhagic colitis to death.
Outbreaks of infection have been reported in Australia, Canada, Japan, United States, in various European countries, and in southern Africa. In the past they have been primarily associated with ground beef and raw milk, but a recent increase in cases involving highly acidic foods such as fermented dry sausages, mayonnaise, and apple cider have raised new concerns.
Global food production, processing, distribution and preparation are creating an increased demand for food safety research in order to minimise the risks and exposure to food pathogens that grow in parallel to an ever-expanding food supply.
In industrialised countries, the percentage of people suffering from foodborne diseases each year has been reported to be up to 30 per cent and in the US, for example, around 76 million cases of foodborne diseases, resulting in 325,000 hospitalisations and 5,000 deaths, are estimated to occur each year.
In 1996, an outbreak of E coli O157:H7 in Japan affected over 6,300 school children and resulted in two deaths. WHO claims that this is the largest outbreak ever recorded for this pathogen.
Due to food makers constant demand for food safety tools, the food protection market is currently enjoying decent growth with shelf life longevity and preservation key concerns for food and beverage manufacturers operating into today's increasingly 'convenient' food culture.