One of the nation’s largest beef processors announced Thursday that it has begun testing for six poisonous strains of E. coli in addition to E. coli O157:H7 — the only serotype meat processors are required to monitor.
Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the leading producer of lean beef in the U.S., says it will hold all lean beef (99 percent of the meat it produces) until it has tested negative for the other most common pathogenic E. coli: O26, O111, O103, O45, O121 and O145.
Like E. coli O157:H7, these bugs, known as the “Big Six,” are capable of producing dangerous Shiga toxins that can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially fatal kidney disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. colis, or STECs, account for 113,000 illnesses in the U.S. each year, almost double the 63,000 sicknesses caused by E. coli O157:H7.
“To do a test and hold and be testing for the Big Six is a pretty big deal,” said Doug Archer, Dean of Research at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and former Deputy Director for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in an interview with Food Safety News.
Archer said that testing for these pathogens “is an absolutely excellent idea from the standpoint of public health.”
Food safety advocates, who have long been pushing policymakers to recognize the threat of non-O157 STECs by declaring them food adulterants, applauded BPI’s initiative.
“These strains of E. coli have been identified for years as causing serious illness and even death to consumers. We have been pressing FSIS (the Food Safety and Inspection Service), members of Congress and anyone else who will listen about the need to keep these pathogens out of the food supply,” said Nancy Donley, president of STOP Foodborne Illness.
STOP partnered with four other consumers advocacy groups, including the National Consumers League, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, to demand that the government take action to prevent non-O157 STECs from reaching consumers.
“It’s time for the Obama Administration to declare these additional six strains adulterants, require robust sampling protocols by the entire industry and require all companies to hold product from commerce until a negative test result is determined,” said Chris Waldorp, Director of CFA’s Food Policy Institute.
Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro, D-CT, released a statement commending BPI and urging the Administration to “implement a strong food safety rule that would do the same. American consumers deserve no less.”
Noticeably missing from the Big Six list is E. coli O104 – the deadly serotype causing the outbreak in Europe linked to organic sprouts grown from fenugreek seeds that has sickened nearly 4,000 and killed at least 50.
Gene Grabowski, a representative for BPI, told Food Safety News that the company has no current plans to test for this pathogen “because that strain is not as big of a threat, according to government observations.”
However, experts say that it’s just a matter of time before this strain makes its way to the U.S..
“Global trade being what it is, if it’s in Germany and Europe, it’ll be here sooner or later,” says Archer.
America should prepare for an ever-expanding list of dangerous pathogens in the future, Archer says.
“I think the Big Six at some point will probably become the dirty dozen because these things keep evolving,” he says.
Food safety proponents hope the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will deem all non-O157 STECs illegal in order to reduce the risk of dangerous new strains as they develop.
“Today BPI has demonstrated a commitment to food safety,” said attorney Bill Marler, publisher of Food Safety News, in a statement Thursday. “I see it as a big step in the right direction, but I’d like to see the USDA and President Obama step up and do what’s right for the American people by declaring not just O157:H7 and the Big Six, but all illness-causing strains of E. coli, adulterants in food,” he said.
Marler filed a petition in October of 2009 asking the government to declare all non-O157 STECs adulterants. In January, FSIS recommended making six non-O157 strains illegal, but the Office of Budget Management has not acted on the proposal.
If FSIS and OMB don’t move by Sept. 1, Marler said he’ll file a lawsuit because he would consider the prolonged inaction “a denial of my petition.”
In the meantime, BPI has taken its own steps and hopes others will follow.
“BPI has been a leader in a lot of these kinds of food safety initiatives … so it’s likely that others probably will do it,” said Grabowski. He explains that other companies will want to adopt these testing techniques in order to keep their product attractive to buyers when compared with BPI’s.
“They’re a big enough player that to stay competitive the others may have to step up,” agrees Archer.
BPI is not the first company to test its products for non-O157 E. coli, proving that it is possible for firms to work this type of testing into business models.
Craig Wilson, director of Food Safety at Costco, says his company has been testing products for non-O157 STEC since last August.
“We think that’s of equal importance so we get all of them and we get as many as there’s tests for. It’s just a matter of incorporating that into your normal O157:H7 testing. It’s not that big of a deal,” Wilson said in an interview with Food Safety News.
Wilson says Costco also currently tests its produce for the strain of E. coli responsible for the German outbreak.
Wilson commends BPI for its new program, saying it should become standard operating procedure for all companies.
“It boils down to why wouldn’t you do it,” he says. “I think they realized that this is something they have to do.”
Added testing isn’t about reassuring consumers or improving marketing capacity for a product, Wilson says. Instead, it’s an internal check to make sure a company is producing safe food.
“Testing doesn’t make it safe. All testing does is tell you that a process is under control,” he says.
Consumers won’t see a dime of the costs associated with BPI’s expanded testing program, says Grabowski.
“While this additional testing will add significantly to the cost of BPI’s current hold and test program, our decision to voluntarily start this testing is consistent with our overall commitment to food safety and quality,” said Craig Letch, the company’s director of Quality Assurance, in a statement.