Retail giant Walmart announced yesterday it will require additional food safety measures from its beef suppliers, including specialized testing for dangerous pathogens like E. coli O157:57 and Salmonella–as well as non-O157 strains of E. coli, strains that are not currently defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as adulterants.

ecoli-agar-plate-featured.jpgNon-O157 strains of E. coli are increasingly grabbing the spotlight in the food safetyscape. This week, two outbreaks were linked to non-O157 types of E. coli and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) urged USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to deem six risky non-O157 stains of E. coli as adulterants in an effort to keep them out of the meat supply. 

“In light of recent beef recalls, we determined it was prudent to require an additional layer of protection for our customers,” said Frank Yiannas, Walmart’s vice president for food safety, in a statement yesterday. “As part of our continuous improvement efforts, we go further than many U.S. retailers in requiring leading-edge food safety standards throughout the entire food production chain.”

Bill Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark, the leading food safety litigation firm, praised Walmart’s decision. “I am impressed that Walmart would test for bugs that FSIS does not.”

“I am unaware of other retailers who are doing it,” said Marler, adding that he will soon be publishing the results from a 5,000-sample test for non-O157 strains in grocery store meat, sponsored by Marler Clark. “Perhaps after we publish the results more retailers will require testing.”

According to Walmart, suppliers who do not operate slaughterhouses must be in compliance with the new standard by June 2011. For beef slaughterhouse suppliers, there is a two-step approach with the first step to be completed by June 2011 and the second by June 2012.

The new policy–which will also apply to meat sold to Sam’s Club–has been reviewed by consumer groups, regulators, academics, beef suppliers, and industry associations, and the company is making it clear that it will implemented without additional costs to consumers.

“Walmart is taking a progressive approach to assuring the safety of the foods they sell. This is a win for the consumers, the beef industry in general, and Walmart,” said Jim Dickson, an Iowa State University professor of animal science, yesterday in the company’s statement. “The lessons learned from Walmart’s approach will be applicable to ground beef sold everywhere.”

“It’s sincerely about reducing the risk to our customers,” Yiannas told Food Safety News in an interview yesterday.


See recent Food Safety News coverage of Non-O157 E. coli:

Non-O157:H7 E. coli Outbreaks Discovered April 27, 2010

Gillibrand to USDA: Regulate Non-O157 E. coli April 27, 2010

Letter from the Editor: Other E. coli Strains February 14, 2010