Ground Beef

USDA extends E coli ban in ground beef

The USDA will ban the sale of any ground beef tainted with the notorious “Big Six” strains of E. coli that are increasingly showing up as the cause of severe illness from food, starting next March. Officials have been under pressure from food safety advocates and politicians to do more to keep the potentially deadly bacteria out of meat, but the beef industry said the move was unnecessary and could force the price of ground beef to rise.

As a result of this action, if the E. coli serogroups O26, O103, O45, O111, O121, and O145 are found in raw ground beef or its precursors, those products will be prohibited from entering commerce.

Like E. coli O157:H7, these serogroups can cause severe illness and even death, and young children and the elderly are at highest risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies these particular serogroups of non-O157:H7 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, or non-O157 STEC, as those responsible for the greatest numbers of non-O157 STEC illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States.

The new rule means that these six relatively rare forms of E. coli will be treated the same as their notorious and more common cousin, E. coli O157:H7. It was banned from ground beef in 1994 after an outbreak killed four children and sickened hundreds of people.

Toxic E. coli, in its most common O157 form, is so virulent that just a few organisms can make people violently sick. It lives in the digestive tracts of cows and can get on meat during slaughter. It can cause bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps and, in severe cases, kidney failure.

Once the ban takes effect, meat producers will be required to test their product for all seven strains, and will not be allowed to sell any meat found to harbour them.

The ban applies only to ground beef, beef scraps and machine-tenderized steaks. Among meats that commonly contain E. coli, these are the only ones that are often eaten without first being cooked to the bacteria-eliminating 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground beef that tests positive for the bacteria can still be used in cooked meat products, which are usually heated far above the temperature required to kill E. coli.

The ban was widely predicted to be imminent and inevitable in light of this summer’s rash of E. coli outbreaks.

“The Obama Administration is committed to protecting our food supply and preventing illnesses before they happen,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Today’s announcement does exactly that by targeting and eliminating contaminated products from the market. Too often, we are caught reacting to a problem instead of preventing it. This new policy will help stop problems before they start.”

But the American Meat Institute, an industry group, has argued that safety measures already in place are sufficient.

“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,” the group said in a statement. “It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy.”

In other food-safety-related news from the USDA this week – yesterday, the department announced that it would begin testing pork for antibiotics. The USDA will use new, sensitive tests to address a growing fear among consumers and doctors that antibiotic residue in animal products could present risks to human health.

The New York Times: Read more