Less than a week after being confirmed as Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen met yesterday with food safety leaders in a meeting organized by former food safety Under Secretary Dr. Richard Raymond to discuss whether non-O157 shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) strains should be declared adulterants in ground beef.  

The meeting was attended by Raymond; nationally recognized food safety advocate Nancy Donley, whose son died after suffering an E. coli O157:H7 infection in 1993; and “meatpacking maverick” John Munsell, who has advocated for improved meat trace-back systems since 2002, when his small meatpacking plant was shut down after E. coli O157:H7 was detected in samples of meat from his plant.  The meat was ultimately traced back to a ConAgra plant in Greeley, CO., that has since been sold to JBS Swift.  Food safety attorney Bill Marler participated in the meeting by telephone.   

During the meeting, Hagen said the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will take action on declaring more STECs adulterants, but did not specify when or which non-O157 E. coli bacteria would be included in FSIS testing.

Munsell, after the meeting, said he found Hagen to be “remarkably well-informed” given her as-yet short tenure as Under Secretary for Food Safety.  He was particularly encouraged by Hagan’s willingness to share “ground-breaking news regarding the agency’s continuing improvement in lab-testing protocol for non-O157 STECs.”

Munsell, in an email, told Food Safety News that Hagan’s candor during the meeting “revealed her courage to traverse difficult terrain.  She is one bold leader, precisely what FSIS needs …”  

Like E. coli O157:H7, other STECs are found in cattle and get into the beef supply when feces contaminate meat during slaughter and processing. The Shiga toxin produced by these E. coli serogroups causes acute, often bloody, diarrhea in individuals who have ingested STEC bacteria.  STEC infection can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening condition that can result from E. coli infection, and can cause kidney failure, central nervous system damage, and other complications in otherwise healthy individuals.    

The CDC estimates that non-O157 STECs cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths annually. Validated tests for four of six non-O157 STECs have been developed.

In October of 2009, Marler petitioned the USDA to declare E. coli O26, O45, O111, O121, O145, and O103–all of which are known to cause human illness–adulterants in beef.  FSIS approved an expedited review of the petition this January, stating the agency needed to conduct research and develop data needed to help address outstanding issues, including “the need to develop laboratory capacity to support policy decisions with respect to non-O157:H7 STEC.”

At the time, Marler told Food Safety News he was preparing a letter to the FSIS response to demonstrate the availability of the necessary lab capacity, and asserted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a test specifically designed to detect non-O157:H7 STECs.  

In February, Safe Tables Our Priority, or S.T.O.P., called on the USDA to declare non-O157:H7 STECs adulterants in beef.  Donley, S.T.O.P.’s president, voiced her concerns that the government was not moving fast enough to address the public health risk posed by non-O157 STECs.  

“The USDA and CDC have known for decades of the public health risk posed by non-O157 STEC,” she said.

In 2007 and 2008–under Raymond’s direction–the USDA had public meetings on the issue, but has not yet enacted any prevention-based strategy for non-O157 STECs.  Instead, USDA declared that it would first conduct testing of ground beef and components to determine the extent of non-O157 STEC contamination and implement a regulatory program if needed.

“While S.T.O.P. has no objection to conducting a baseline study, we object to holding up declaring these additional E. coli strains as adulterants in beef,” said Donley.  “We have been urging USDA for years to enact health-based prevention strategies for these killer strains of E. coli.”

At the August meeting of the International Association for Food Protection, Pina Fratamico, with USDA’s Agricultural Research Station at the University of Georgia in Athens, said that while E. coli O157 infects about 73,000 people annually, the other STECs account for about 37,000 illnesses.

Alex Gill with Health Canada questioned whether, from a diagnostic and treatment approach, it would be better just to focus on STECs, period, and not specific strains.

In an October 2009 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC, the authors recommended “that all stools submitted for routine testing from patients with acute community-acquired diarrhea (regardless of patient age, season of the year, or presence or absence of blood in the stool) be simultaneously cultured for E. coli O157:H7 (O157 STEC) and tested with an assay that detects Shiga toxins to detect non-O157 STEC.”

They state, “The recommendations are intended primarily for clinical laboratories but also are an important reference for health-care providers, public health laboratories, public health authorities, and patients and their advocates.”

In April, retail giant Wal-Mart announced that the company would begin testing for all STECs, not just E. coli O157:H7, in ground beef sold at Wal-Mart stores.

“In light of recent beef recalls, we determined it was prudent to require an additional layer of protection for our customers,” said Frank Yiannas, Wal-Mart’s vice president for food safety.  “It’s sincerely about reducing the risk to our customers,” Yiannas told Food Safety News in an interview.

In an August 19 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the American Meat Institute (AMI) stated that a move by the USDA to declare all STECs adulterants “will result in a regulatory program that will do more harm than good,” and that non-O157 STEC “in beef products may be a reason for potential public health concern, but it is not a public health emergency.”

USDA’s inaction on a petition submitted five years ago by the AMI was also discussed during yesterday’s meeting.  In July of 2005, the AMI submitted a petition for carcass irradiation–a process to reduce or eliminate pathogens like E. coli on meat carcasses.  

Approval of the AMI’s petition would allow for low-dose e-beam radiation over the surface of chilled carcasses as a processing aid, a process the meat industry favors but that opponents have advocated is an excuse for not cleaning up “the industrial system that delivers feces-covered cattle to the slaughterhouse in the first place.”  

At a September 18, 2008 public meeting on the issue, FSIS announced that the petition had “merit,” but no action has been taken in response to the petition.  Feedstuffs, an agribusiness newspaper, reported that
Raymond said Hagen agreed that five years was too long to allow a petition to go unanswered, but that she had not indicated a clear action plan for the AMI’s request.  

Since 1999, FSIS has permitted the use of ionizing radiation for treating meat, meat byproducts, and certain meat food products so long as labels disclose the product is irradiated, but putting radiation labels on food has not gained consumer acceptance.