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FSIS Delays ‘Big Six’ E. Coli Policy 90 Days

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new, groundbreaking non-O157 E. coli policy, which classifies six new strains as adulterants and requires testing, will become effective 90 days later than originally planned, the Food Safety and Inspection Service announced Wednesday.

The delay, which did not surprise industry insiders, will push back the routine sampling of the six additional STEC serogroups, O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145, to June 4, from the original deadline of March 5.

FSIS said the purpose of the extension is to “provide additional time for establishments to validate their test methods and detect these pathogens prior to entering the stream of commerce.”

The agency is planning to initially sample raw beef manufacturing trimmings and other raw ground beef product components produced domestically and imported, and test the samples for the serogroups.

If these products test positive for non-O157 STECs, they will be prevented from entering commerce — in the same way that E. coli O157: H7 has been treated since 1994.

“Consumers deserve a modernized food safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, in a statement to Food Safety News. “As non-O157 STEC bacteria have emerged and evolved, so too must our regulatory policies to protect the public health and ensure the safety of our food supply. CDC and other Federal agencies reported that the incidence rate of confirmed cases of non-O157 STEC illnesses exceeded the incidence of O157:H7 cases for the first time. These bacteria cause severe illnesses and can cause illnesses in small concentrations, so we are acting responsibly to ensure they are not in the food Americans serve their families.”

“This policy represents a major advancement for public health,” said FSIS in the announcement Wednesday.

The American Meat Institute, the group representing companies that process the vast majority of American beef, disagrees. While AMI lauded the delay in implementation as a “good first step,” the group also again criticized the new policy.

“As we have maintained since the initial announcement by FSIS, this new policy is not supported by science and likely will not benefit public health,” said James Hodges, executive vice president at AMI, in a statement. 

“Even with a 90 day delay, imposing this new regulatory program in June puts the cart before the horse and will needlessly cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars – costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers,” added Hodges. “In short, the policy is not likely to yield a significant public health benefit and given that research should precede and dictate the policy, the process that FSIS has followed in this matter is no way to develop good public policy.”  

While most in the industry agree that more time is needed to calibrate testing programs, not everyone is opposed to the new policy.

Costco, for example, has been testing for non-O157 STECs in ground beef since August 2010. The company’s director of food safety, Craig Wilson, believes FSIS is doing the right thing and told Food Safety News that the testing does not make beef at Costco more expensive than elsewhere, in part because the company processes 1.4 million pounds of ground beef and hot dogs per day and can easily spread testing costs.

“I’m really surprised at AMI’s comments,” said Wilson, adding that he agreed the delay would help meat companies to improve their testing systems. “I’m fully supportive of what USDA’s doing here.”

“I happen to agree with a lot of folks when they say that the interventions will knock out all the STECs. Here’s where we differ: I want to prove it,” he said. “It truly is a public health issue.”

Consumer groups aren’t alarmed about the delay either, as long as the policy moves forward.

“While we are disappointed that FSIS has decided to delay the implementation of the enforcement of the new non-0157 STEC policy, we understand that the testing methodology needs to be valid for such enforcement to take place,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch. “We sincerely hope that this will be the last delay in the implementation of this important consumer protection.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the six additional strains of E. coli being targeted cause approximately 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually in the United States.

© Food Safety News
  • Jim of AMI – time to get out of the dark ages – pre-“Jungle” – and get on board with public health. Uptown Sinclair and consumers will appreciate it.

  • kwarriner

    I think we have all been in a situation where we have started an argument but then found out we were wrong but just couldent bring ourselves to backdown. I think this is what FSIS feels about the non-O157 STEC policy at the moment. Although the policy was made with good intensions there is no evidence that it will enhance food safety or reduce the incidence of non-O157 STEC. Although there are figures that state the policy will prevent 100, 000 cases of STEC toxico-infection the reality is that beef is not a major source of non-O157 STEC. There has been one possible outbreak of non-O157 STEC linked to beef but even that was questioned. Person-to-Person and food handlers are more significant so if all these resources have to be spent at least direct them to the right area. This is the second delay for implementing the policy and feel that FSIS would prefer to brush it under the carpet at the moment.

  • Steve

    Ah the American meat Institute strikes again.
    …you gotta be crazy to buy burger these days — ground beef, and trimmings and lord knows what else are all mixed together from hundreds of E coli-producing devices (ie.spent dairy cows, feedlot beefers, etc. etc.)
    You can buy a cut at the meat counter and have it ground — but even that mixes surface bacteria throughout the burgerand then you have to wonder how well the grinding machine was cleaned after the last batch…

  • doc raymond

    James H Hodges thinks he is speaking for his dues paying members, but in talking with most of them I find they are already testing for the non-O157 STECs and diverting the meat testing positive because they are truly trying to protect the public’s health. AMI is just trying to justify their high annual dues, but are missing the boat on this issue. (Ever wonder why the two top officials, James H and J Patrick use the initial?)

  • Keith Warriner

    I think we have all been in a situation where we have started an argument but then found out we were wrong but just couldent bring ourselves to backdown. I think this is what FSIS feels about the non-O157 STEC policy at the moment. Although the policy was made with good intensions there is no evidence that it will enhance food safety or reduce the incidence of non-O157 STEC. Although there are figures that state the policy will prevent 100, 000 cases of STEC toxico-infection the reality is that beef is not a major source of non-O157 STEC. There has been one possible outbreak of non-O157 STEC linked to beef but even that was questioned. Person-to-Person and food handlers are more significant so if all these resources have to be spent at least direct them to the right area. This is the second delay for implementing the policy and feel that FSIS would prefer to brush it under the carpet at the moment.

  • doc raymond

    Keith, enlighten me please. What was the first delay in implementation? I think you are wrong but I am open minded. Also please cite your source for the statement “the policy will prevent 100,000 cases” of infection by non-O157 STECs. The only statement I can find around that is that the policy will REDUCE the number of infections. It does not attribute the estimated 110,000 annual infections all to ground beef. As for person to person and food handlers spreading the illnesses, where do you think they picked up the pathogen if not from adulterated beef?

  • Minkpuppy

    In my experience, FSIS will not back down on this. Once it hits the comments phase, it’s pretty much set in stone that it’s gonna happen in one form or another.
    If the current interventions will knock out the non-0157 STECS, then testing to prove it shouldn’t be a problem. But some folks just have to dig their heels in and continue to fight when the battle is already over.

  • keith Warriner

    Doc Raymond, the 100, 000 reference is actual written in the article although I agree this is a vast over-estimation in any case. My personnel feeling is that the incidence of non-O157 STEC will continue to rise despite the increased testing. I will stick by the comment that beef is the wrong target. If anything, the prevalence of non-O157 STEC in sheep is higher than beef.
    The initial deadline for comments was Dec 2011 but this was extended. Now we have a further extension to June 2012. I think this is a classic case of trying to push a regulation through without thinking of the implications. Still time will tell

  • doc raymond

    They did not extend the comment period to June 2012, that is the implementation date. They did extend the first comment period to December, so I guess you are technically correct that there have been two delays, one for comments and one for implementation. But I was looking only at the one delay, the date of implementation being delayed 90 days. Oh well. The article does say “reduce” the number, not “prevent 100,000 cases” however