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FSIS Announcement that it will Classify six Strains of non-O157 E. coli as 'Adulterants' When Found in Ground Beef Lacks Scientific Support

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

(American Meat Institute)

Announcement Comes as Agency Notes Illnesses from Pathogen Are Not Primarily Due to Beef and is Unsure of Illness Prevention
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) today unveiled a new notice that will declare six strains of non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (nSTEC) as adulterants when they are found in ground beef and other non-intact ground beef products, yet at the same time, the department said that illnesses that occur from this pathogen are not primarily caused by beef. 

Although the new policy is intended to benefit public health with limited costs, in the notice USDA acknowledged that “we do not know how many illnesses will actually be prevented.  It is not clear whether or not there will be a reduction in the number of illnesses.  It is also challenging to know what the industry cost will be because it is difficult to predict how many establishments will start to test and what the size distribution will be or to what extent industry will take additional measures that will prevent, reduce, or control those hazards, as they do with regard to O157 STEC.”   
The notice becomes effective March 5, 2012.  At that time, FSIS will begin testing beef for six additional strains of nSTEC in addition to when it tests beef trimmings for E. coli O157:H7.  The testing program will later be expanded to ground beef when more laboratory capacity becomes available, USDA said.   The strains covered by the new notice include E. coli serogroups O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145.  Comments on the new policy will be accepted for 60 days following its publication in the Federal Register, which is expected to occur this week.
In its news release, USDA said that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies these particular serogroups of nSTEC as responsible for the greatest numbers of nSTEC illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States.  However, the notice itself says, “The illnesses associated with these strains have not primarily been due to contamination on beef.”  In fact, only three nSTEC infections have been definitely linked to beef, according to CDC data.
AMI has long argued that testing cannot make food safe and has long maintained that controls for E. coli O157:H7 are also effective against nSTEC, a position conveyed again to USDA in August 2010.  Remarkably, while agency officials characterized their new notice as a dramatic food safety move that will prevent illnesses, the notice itself echoes the AMI position saying, “Controls for E. coli O157:H7 already in place should be as effective in controlling non-O157 STEC as in controlling E. coli O157:H7 and the industry would not need to take additional measures to control non-O157 STEC as a result of this notice.”
In response, AMI Executive Vice President James H. Hodges said, “USDA’s declaration of six nSTEC as adulterants in beef is neither warranted nor justified by the science.  Perspective on this issue is badly needed.  nSTEC have caused illnesses, but nSTEC in ground beef have only been directly linked to one outbreak involving three illnesses.  CDC estimates that 48 million foodborne illnesses occur in the U.S. annually and nSTEC from all food sources account for 112,000 illness, yet federal resources are being devoted only to STEC in beef products that account for less than 0.1 percent of total foodborne 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 also expressed concern that this major announcement is not accompanied by a public health risk assessment.  “Instead, USDA has drafted a paper detailing its ‘reasoning’ because the agency admits it does not have the data needed to do a proper public health risk assessment,” he said.
To view the notice, click here: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/FRPubs/2010-0023.pdf


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