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STEC Testing Progress Outruns AMI Delaying Tactics

Sometimes events just run over the best planned lobbying strategy.

Take the American Meat Institute (AMI) for example. Wednesday found it again rolling out what it claims are problems with testing for strains of non-O157:H7 E. coli. That might have been a good tactic to delay regulating those strains, which AMI calls the Sinful Six.

AMI argues that testing for these toxic strains, banning the sale of ground beef that contains them, or penalties like adulteration labels will not make meat safer.

Non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) are a hot topic, especially since the German outbreak of the O104:H4 serotype that has killed 39 and sickened more than 3,400 Europeans and a handful of Americans. In the U.S., the only STEC banned from meat is O157:H7, which was declared an adulterant in 1994.

Six other strains of virulent E. coli that are fairly common in the U.S. should also be declared adulterants, according to food safety advocates who petitioned for action on this proposal since late 2009. New rules that deal with these pathogens have been drafted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but have been stalled within the Office of Management and Budget.

The so-called Big Six are tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and these strains are responsible for 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths annually. Last year, for the first time, the Big Six collectively caused more illnesses in the U.S. than did E. coli O157:H7.

But ever since the petition was filed, asking that the Big Six be banned from meat, the powerful AMI has claimed that “no relevant, validated, FSIS-accepted, rapid test for non-O157:H7 STECs is commercially available.”

With media friendly to its cause Wednesday, AMi changed that position ever so slightly, saying USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was still working on the tests that might be used to detect the six non-O157s in meat.

The Washington D.C.-lobbying powerhouse hauled out Betsy Booren, its director of scientific affairs, to say FSIS was still working to overcome obstacles in some of the tests. She called FSIS testing “a work in progress.”

If there were testing problems — FSIS would later in the day say they’ve identified “workarounds” to make testing methodology it already validated last October work — it might be enough to further slow decision-makers.

But timing was not on AMi’s side on this day. At the University of Arkansas, something called the Litmus Rapid-B (LRB) was being rolled it. The device was called “a significant improvement over current conventional methods for detecting pathogenic E. coli bacteria.”

The federal Food and Drug Administration’s Food Emergency Response Network validated the new E. coli detection technology in its lab.

UA’s Division of Agriculture’s Center for Food Safety, which developed the LRB, expects the rapid screening tool will be able to be used for non-O157s.

The National Center for Toxicological Research, an FDA unit based in Jefferson, AK, collaborated in developing the LRB, along with LRB LLC, the Little Rock-based biotech company.

With the testing issue taken away or at least greatly diminished, AMI’s James Hodges argued no more testing is needed anyway. “Common interventions in U.S. meat plants work against all strains of E. coli,” he says.

The Big Six E. coli strains awaiting action by the Obama Administration are: O26, O45, O145: O103, O111, and  O121. The petition to regulate them was filed on behalf of individuals who’ve suffered injuries or losses from those strains by the Seattle-based food safety law firm Marler Clark, which sponsors Food Safety News.

© Food Safety News
  • doc raymond

    Dan, two points that I think need to be emphasized here:
    1. E coli O157:H7 testing is still “a work in progress”. When O157 was declared an adulterant way back in 1994, the testing was rudimentary at best. Testing for the Big Six is already way ahead of where we were for O157 back then. And O157 testing continues to improve in accuracy and speed. AMI should not be allowed to use testing problems at this point. Back in 2007 testing was not available, and we did not declare the Big Six as adulterants at that time because of that fact. Facts have changed. For just once, AMI should take the side of protecting the public’s health.
    2. And the public health is more greatly endangered than your piece today would indicate. The CDC estimate of 36,700 illnesses per year is based on a 1999 report before testing for non-O157 STECs became as prevalent as it is today. The most recent CDC report came out in January in its “Emerging Infectious Diseases” journal and can be read at http://www.cdc.gov/eid/content/17/1/7.htm In that report, the CDC estimates the number of non-L157 STEC illnesses to be closer to 169,000 per year, with 113,000 coming from food eaten in the US. Nearly twioe the number of O157 illnesses.
    The same interventions may work for non-O157 as work for O157, but if nearly 200,000 people fall ill from the E coli bacteria, are those interventions enough? That is just another lame argument to keep change from happening. Remember, the industry argued in 1992 that E coli O157:H7 was not a serious problem. Then we had Jack in the Box, followed by the declaration that O157 was an adulterant, followed by AMI’s law suit to prevent FSIS from testing for O157, followed by a judge’s decision in FSIS’ favor, followed by a 60% reduction in E coli O157 foodborne illnesses.

  • Doc Mudd

    How is this testing protocol designed, Doc?
    Sample and test random samples? Test targeted producers/product? Somehow test everything?
    Will this routine testing eliminate practical issues with the “Big Six” and win consumer confidence without ‘test and hold’?
    Not lookin’ to start anything here, sincerely curious.

  • Brian Umberson

    The LRB e.coli 0157 product test provides better than culture plate sensitivity, counts cells not colonies, counts live and dead cells so you can determine efficacy of interventions, and does all of this in less than 6 hours.