The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Food safety advocates, meat industry debate USDA's declaration on E. coli strains

The Agriculture Department is scheduled to announce today that it will declare six strains of E. coli as adulterants in food, but the story broke early after USDA briefed advocates on Monday.

USDA said in a news release that the six strains of E. coli “can cause severe illness and even death, and young children and the elderly are at highest risk,” the Washington Post reported.

The decision was immediately hailed by food safety advocates, but criticized by the meat industry.

“I’m really pleased,” William Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food-safety cases told the Washington Post. “This is going to go a long way towards making our food supply safer.”

Rep. Rosa De Lauro, D-Conn., a long-time food safety advocate, said in a news release, “I am thrilled that the USDA will at last recognize these six devastating strains of E. coli as adulterants, as this new rule will help to protect American consumers from known deadly pathogens. It is a critical step forward in bettering our food safety system. When a similar action was taken on E. coli O157:H7, its prevalence decreased by nearly fourfold, and I hope to see a similar result with these six strains. I applaud this new rule, and hope to continue enhancing the USDA’s ability to protect American consumers from unsafe food.”

The Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention applauded the decision, saying that the adulterant label “means there will be zero tolerance for these strains of E. coli — known as the Big Six — in certain beef products.”
USDA has considered E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in certain beef products, but today’s declaration will add E. coli O26, O11, O45, O121, O103, and O145 to the list, the center said in a news release.

USDA officials told advocates that, in addition to domestic products, the 1 billion pounds of beef products imported annually into the United States will also fall under the new policy, the center said.

Tanya Roberts, chair of CFI’s board of directors and a former senior economist at USDA said, “The economic impact of this new policy is significant, with the benefits far outweighing the costs. By leveraging existing testing programs, USDA will be able to take contaminated products out of the food chain, out of restaurants and grocery stores, and off our plates at minimal cost and, at the same time, increase consumer confidence in the food supply. This is not only good for public health but it is also good for business.”

The American Meat Institute, which represents large meatpackers, said in a statement that the announcement that “it will soon be ‘illegal’ to have six strains of naturally occurring non-O157 E. coli in ground beef is premised upon the notion that the government can make products safe by banning a pathogen. That view is not supported by science.”

AMI Vice President James Hodges added, “As we understand it, this major announcement is not coupled with a public health risk assessment, which is ordinarily the basis for good public health policy. Instead, USDA has indicated that they have drafted a paper detailing their ‘reasoning’ because they admit they don’t have the data they need to do a proper risk assessment. 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. It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy.”