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Vilsack: Working to Finalize Policy on Non-O157

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Wednesday highlighted the need to test meat for non-O157 strains of E. coli bacteria.

Speaking

to a group of scientists and industry members at the International

Association for Food Protection conference in Milwaukee, Vilsack said

the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is prepared to expand its

testing program beyond E. coli O157:H7 – the only strain for which it

currently screens – to include other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli

(STECs), which can cause severe illness in humans.  

Together,

the six most common non-O157 E. coli serotypes, also known as the “Big

Six,” which include E. coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145, account

for almost two-thirds of E. coli illnesses in the U.S. each year,

according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In

January USDA submitted a draft policy to the White House Office of

Management and Budget (OMB) proposing that non-O157 STECs be declared

adulterants, and therefore illegal, in meat and poultry. 

The document

has yet to be approved. However, Vilsack says, “[OMB is] actively

working with us to move this through the process and finalize a policy

that will supported by the best science. And I’m hopeful that we’ll be

able to announce this progress very very soon.”

For food safety advocates, such a decision has been a long time in coming. 

“Although

I have great respect for Secretary Vilsack, I expected nothing of

import from this speech,” said leading food poisoning attorney Bill

Marler, publisher of Food Safety News. “I am frankly stunned, but heartened, by his words about pathogenic E. coli.  His words need to be turned into action.”

In 2009, Marler filed a petition with the government asking that all non-O157 STECs be named food adulterants. 

Vilsack recognizes that the government has been slow in taking action against non-O157 STECs.

“I

know that it has taken some time – much to the frustration of many in

this room, those in Congress, and most importantly…the American

public,” said Vilsack. “But by taking this issue seriously, the

scientific, advocacy and government communities have created the

atmosphere so that when we do announce a new policy to protect consumers

from non O157 STECs, everyone from the government and the industry

hopefully will be ready to embrace it.”

The

struggle to adopt non-O157 policy is an example of a larger need for a

faster food safety policymaking system, said Vilsack, who expressed

concern that lawmaking often lags behind scientific developments. 

“Change

isn’t happening more rapidly,” he said. “We have all of this data, all

of this information, all of these groups that are crunching these

numbers and we’re learning about this stuff every day at a rapid rate

and we have an antiquated 19th century system that takes forever to get

to a point where you regulate something or declare something adulterant.

That adulterant’s already moved on, and you never catch up.”

Vilsack

said USDA is also making changes in the way Food Safety and Inspection

Service (FSIS) responds after it finds E. coli O157 in ground beef, and

that a new policy should be announced soon on tracebacks:

“Ground

beef follows a long and complex processing chain, and we need a better

system for tracing back contaminated product in that chain quickly.

Until October of last year, FSIS waited until after there was a positive

E. coli result to get details on a product. Now, FSIS requires

inspectors to record information about the supplier and the source of

that beef when they take samples of trim and ground beef for E. coli

testing.

“But we have more to do in this area.

I’ve directed FSIS to develop a new policy that looks at how we can

change our actions after we find a product that tests positive for O157.

“In

90 days, I expect the agency to announce the first step in transforming

our traceback policy. I’ve also instructed FSIS to complete a pilot

study on new technologies and sampling methods that help us test ground

beef and trim more quickly and efficiently. If we hold industry

accountable for safe food, then our tests and sampling methods must be

the best available.”

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