The FSIS was due to start routine testing of raw ground beef and its components for six new serogroups of pathogenic E.coli (O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145) on 5 March 2012, with any beef products found to carry the bacteria to be prohibited from entering the food chain.
However, it has now extended the implementation date until 4 June 2012 to “provide additional time for establishments to validate their test methods and detect these pathogens.”
The delay has been welcomed by US meat industry representatives, who claim that the testing programme would be extremely costly with little benefit to public health, and should not go ahead without further research into the causes of E.coli infections and the validation of test methods to detect the bacteria.
James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, told GlobalMeatNews:
“According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) foodborne illness outbreak online database there has been only one recall for ground beef products that may have been contaminated with one of these six STECs involving 8,500lbs of ground beef and associated with three illnesses in New York and Maine. Otherwise there have been zero beef related outbreaks related to these six strains since 1998.
“Even in the policy announcement USDA acknowledged that ‘we do not know how many illnesses will actually be prevented. Furthermore, what the science shows is that current technologies used to destroy E. coli O157:H7 – technologies that have dramatically reduced this pathogen to levels never thought possible a decade ago – are equally effective against all strains. Indeed, in the notice, FSIS stated that ‘these methods should be as effective in controlling non-O157 STEC as in controlling E. coli O157:H7.’”
Hodges added that even with the delay, imposing the new regulation in June would still be premature and costly. “[It] puts the cart before the horse and will needlessly cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars – costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers. USDA needs to do a public health risk assessment, which is ordinarily the basis for good public health policy,” he said.
The USDA announced its decision to extend its “zero tolerance policy” for E.coli O157:H7 to six additional E.coli serogroups in September. It said that the CDC had identified these particular serogroups of non-0157 STEC as responsible for the greatest numbers of non-O157 illnesses, hospitalisations, and deaths in the United States.
“Consumers deserve a modernised food safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats. As non-O157 STEC bacteria have emerged and evolved, so too must our regulatory policies to protect the public health and ensure the safety of our food supply,” said under secretary Elisabeth Hagen.