Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

The ‘Big Six’ Are a Big Problem Worth Solving

This March, America’s food supply is slated to get a tiny bit safer — a change the meat industry is vehemently opposing.

At issue is the USDA’s plan to require U.S. slaughterhouses to expand their E. coli tests. Currently, meat companies must test for just one E. coli strain: O157:H7. The USDA’s pending regulations will require testing for six additional pathogenic strains. These bacteria are often referred to as the “Big Six,” and food safety advocates have long assailed the government’s refusal to mandate testing for these bugs. As with O157:H7, each of these strains produces the kidney-ravaging Shiga toxin.

The closing of this testing loophole is unwelcome news to the meat industry, which has a longstanding penchant for attacking even the most sensible of food safety regulations. James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, went so far as to say: “[The] USDA is proposing a solution in search of a problem.”

It’s hard to imagine a more clueless and callous response than denying point-blank that these bacteria pose a genuine menace. Since 2004, seven different USA outbreaks involving non-O157 strains have been traced to meat or dairy-containing foods. Collectively, these outbreaks have produced more than 4,500 illnesses. And there have been seven more USA outbreaks in which scientists have been unable to determine the bacteria’s origin. I’d like to see Hodges tell all these victims that Big Six bacteria are not a problem worth solving.

As our knowledge of these 4,500 illnesses was garnered from passive after-the-fact outbreak investigations, it’s impossible to know just how many Big Six victims have gone uncounted – and the meat industry would like to keep it that way. After all, routine testing for these strains will give public health officials a clear indication of their pervasiveness in the meat supply.

For all we know, we’ve gotten lucky so far, and a much larger outbreak looms around the corner. Witness what happened last summer when one E. coli strain, propagated by sprouts, sickened more than 4,300 people in Europe — killing 50 and causing more than 800 cases of kidney failure.

Nightmare scenarios like this are surely why the USDA has at long last decided to take action. But the meat industry cares nothing for the public health, and is willing to deny the existence of obvious dangers in an attempt to avoid new regulations.

————————

Erik Marcus is the publisher of Vegan.com, and the author of four books including “The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice.”

© Food Safety News
  • keith Warriner

    There is no dispute that non-O157 STEC are increasing in significance and require attention before we experience the same fate as in Germany. However, I do have doubts that meat should be the real target here. Although there has been the occasional outbreak linked to meat it is evident that non-O157 STEC implicated in HUS are harbored by humans. In addition, testing always gives a false sense of security as interventions are the key to control

  • It’s notable that you pull one phrase out of our complete statement to distort our message. Our complete statement noted that the measures we have in place today work for all strains of E. coli; they do not discriminate.
    Further, our full statement demonstrated how USDA’s own notice on nSTECS and its risk review all questioned the scientific underpinnings of the policy. To assist your readers, let me provide this link to my complete statement, complete with quotes from USDA and scientific reviewers. http://bit.ly/t1KxnV
    Perhaps I should have anticipated that the quote would be without a context and said, “USDA is proposing a beef targeted solution in search of a beef related problem.”
    And let me just restate the quotes we referenced in our complete statement that show that some in USDA, and certainly their scientific experts, are in synch with our perspective.
    Comments from scientific experts included in USDA’s risk profile highlight the knowledge gaps about nSTECs:
    • “We found no consensus in the scientific community about precisely which features, or virulence factors, make an STEC harmful to humans.”
    • “…due to lack of baseline data, we cannot make definitive quantitative statements about the national prevalence or the likelihood that pathogenic STEC serogroups may be found in either cattle or ground beef.”
    Similarly, the final determination published in the Federal Register by FSIS raises questions about the new policy:
    • “As we have stated, control for E. coli O157:H7 already in place should be as effective in controlling non-O157 STEC as in controlling E. coli O157:H7.”
    • “We note that the illnesses associated with these strains have not primarily been due to contamination on beef.”
    • “It is not clear whether on net there will be a reduction in the number of illnesses.”

  • Nonsense. Your quote wasn’t taken out of context. What you wrote was flat-out indefensible and I called you on it. And now you’re saying you should have said something entirely different to avoid being taken out of context. The problem wasn’t the context, it was with what you actually said!
    And now you’re saying: “Our complete statement noted that the measures we have in place today work for all strains of E. coli; they do not discriminate.”
    Those measures you have in place today against all strains of E. coli—do you really want to have a conversation about how well they’re actually working?

  • It’s notable that you pull one phrase out of our complete statement to distort our message. Our complete statement noted that the measures we have in place today work for all strains of E. coli; they do not discriminate.
    Further, our full statement demonstrated how USDA’s own notice on nSTECS and its risk review all questioned the scientific underpinnings of the policy. To assist your readers, let me provide this link to my complete statement, complete with quotes from USDA and scientific reviewers. http://bit.ly/t1KxnV
    Perhaps I should have anticipated that the quote would be without a context and said, “USDA is proposing a beef targeted solution in search of a beef related problem.”
    And let me just restate the quotes we referenced in our complete statement that show that some in USDA, and certainly their scientific experts, are in synch with our perspective.
    Comments from scientific experts included in USDA’s risk profile highlight the knowledge gaps about nSTECs:
    • “We found no consensus in the scientific community about precisely which features, or virulence factors, make an STEC harmful to humans.”
    • “…due to lack of baseline data, we cannot make definitive quantitative statements about the national prevalence or the likelihood that pathogenic STEC serogroups may be found in either cattle or ground beef.”
    Similarly, the final determination published in the Federal Register by FSIS raises questions about the new policy:
    • “As we have stated, control for E. coli O157:H7 already in place should be as effective in controlling non-O157 STEC as in controlling E. coli O157:H7.”
    • “We note that the illnesses associated with these strains have not primarily been due to contamination on beef.”
    • “It is not clear whether on net there will be a reduction in the number of illnesses.”

  • Nonsense. Your quote wasn’t taken out of context. What you wrote was flat-out indefensible and I called you on it. And now you’re saying you should have said something entirely different to avoid being taken out of context. The problem wasn’t the context, it was with what you actually said!
    And now you’re saying: “Our complete statement noted that the measures we have in place today work for all strains of E. coli; they do not discriminate.”
    Those measures you have in place today against all strains of E. coli—do you really want to have a conversation about how well they’re actually working?

  • Charlie Talbert

    James, I think your sound-byte “[The] USDA is proposing a solution in search of a problem” is near-perfect as is. If I were in your place, I wouldn’t change a word.
    You’ve bagged a twofer: It simultaneously frames the USDA (except for the ones “in synch with our perspective”) as a bunch of ineffectual stooges, and the E-coli outbreaks as a non-problem.
    OK, so it’s just near-perfect, but when you’re challenged on its one flaw, that it’s not the truth, you can respond in the artful, expert way you have here. Simply cite the scientific studies you choose (like the ones your industry funds) that make your case, or at least obfuscate the issues.