Here is an easy case to make: The pursuit of E. coli O157:H7 and its total eradication has been the holy grail of the meat industry since at least the infamous 1993 Jack in the Box case. The industry has acknowledged millions have been spent in research and the in-plant installation of multiple, science-based ‘hurdles’ to prevent the bug from entering the food supply.  Add in the courtroom losses and the recall of millions of pounds of meat and the cost to the industry easily jumps into the billion dollar classification.

Serious money.

To underscore the importance of the pursuit, in the past 17 years, there have been countless special sessions at dozens of meat industry events, and seminars devoted entirely to E. coli O157:H7.  The North American Meat Processors Association has hosted a spring mini-conference and a high-intensity 2 day fall conference to the subject for the past two years.  Both events, eagerly co-sponsored by the industry’s major trade associations and publications who understand the seriousness of the subject, are sold out well in advance.

But we’re talking about just O157:H7 here, a bug that’s been extensively researched and heavily publicized.  It’s a topic that’s just as hot in the general press as it is among the packers and processors of North America.  What’s not so well researched are six less common E. coli strains that can cause serious illnesses–two dozen cases in four states this spring caused by bagged romaine lettuce.

An unappetizing truth is hundreds of strains of E. coli live in the intestines of people as well as cattle and other animals.  Forgetting the “Yuck!” factor for a moment, even if they get into the food supply, only a very few cause illness.  Six strains have been found that produce a toxin similar to O157:H7, probably accounting for the majority of the 30,000+ non-O157 E. coli cases reported annually.

Although the meat industry has never experienced an acknowledged outbreak of disease caused by one of those six strains, Bill Marler, head of the Seattle law firm that specializes in pursuing cases of food borne illnesses, launched a pre-emptive strike and petitioned the USDA to list them as adulterants.  He’s even spent about half a million dollars of his own money to test for them in samples of meat found at retail establishments.  

Responding to his petition, the meat industry says ‘not so fast’ and they’ve got a herd of influential friends in their corner.

Leading the pack is Dr. Patricia Griffin, head of the CDC’s foodborne illness epidemiology section, who understands their argument.  Talking about the various E. coli strains, she said, “The problem is it’s a little slippery to say which ones cause human illness. We don’t have it defined yet.  We know those six, and we know a few others, but the others are still in a gray zone.”

Her point is well taken.  There is not enough known about which are the potentially deadly strains and testing protocols for them are shaky at best.  It’s important to know what you’re looking for and how to find it.  Otherwise, it’s an unnecessary waste of valuable resources that need to be aimed at the known bad guys.

Even Mansour Samadpour, President of IEH Laboratories, the facility Marler hired to look for the six suspect strains, agrees with Griffin.  He thinks the USDA needs to set standards for testing, first.

A USDA standard might still be a long way off.  Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator for the Office of Public Health Science for FSIS, claims they’ve been working for three years on a screening test but all they have to show for their labor is something that’s reliable on only four of the six suspect strains. The agency is reluctant to ban a broader range of E. coli strains until they’ve developed a reliable and rapid test.  A ban issued sooner would be labeled premature and create a huge backlash in a meat industry suddenly charged with identifying and eliminating something for which there would be no reliable tool to do the job.

“We are hopeful that in the next six months or so we would have a screen that would reliably find all six,” said Goldman. The agency expects to work on that project, though, until the end of 2011 and then study the beef supply to determine how often those strains occur in meat products.

“I don’t want to give the impression that we’re going to wait months and months for these tests, and months and months to see what’s in the beef supply. In terms of policy options, it’s not like we have to do one and then the other,” said Goldman.

Jim Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute (AMI), said banning six more E. coli strains won’t solve anything. “The food safety strategies in place in plants today are far more effective in enhancing food safety than outlawing a pathogen that nature presents us.”  

AMI Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and General Counsel Mark Dopp, agreed with Hodges. “We are concerned that food safety resources in the private sector and the public sector are not infinite.  It’s important to invest in technologies that will provide meaningful food safety benefits.  We do not believe that declaring non-O157 STECS to be adulterants will enhance the food safety system, and we think that application of such a policy could consume resources that could be better spent elsewhere to achieve meaningful food safety progress.”

Although outlawing a bug simply because it exists does no good, Hodges didn’t respond to my question about testing for those six if a reliable test were available.  Simply put, if it’s proven to be a health problem, the meat industry must seize the initiative.  It has to face a doubtful public and influential politicians like U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) who must be satisfied that food processors are not dragging their heels.

Gillibrand sniffs at Hodges’ comments, almost like she’s just caught a whiff of bad meat.  She’s made food safety one of the cornerstones of her senate seat, going off on some bizarre tangents and scoring the occasional good point. One of those good points–her statement that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated those six strains cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year, making them a health hazard that must be faced.

Defending her bill that would tag those strains as adulterants and must be tracked, she said, “How many people have to get sick before we take action? In America, in 2010, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety.”

“It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating. We need to pass this legislation to keep our families safe,” she said.