U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy remains unchanged: the agency considers any disease-causing strain of E. coli to be illegal.

Why that statement was removed from a press release published June 3 was simply the result of a “robust editing process,” an FDA spokesman said Thursday in response to an earlier inquiry from Food Safety News.

The FDA, which is responsible for the safety of about 80 percent of the food consumed in the United States, said the statement was edited out within about an hour of its original release last month.

“On June 3, 2011, FDA posted an early draft of a press release titled ‘FDA statement on E. coli O104 outbreak in Europe,’ ” agency spokesman Stephen King said Thursday.  “Less than an hour later, FDA posted and issued a final release. As we have been stating since the outbreak in Europe, FDA considers any disease-causing strain of E. coli in food to be illegal.”

“FDA press releases go though an robust editing process and it is not out of the ordinary for quotes and comments to be changed or deleted if they are not necessary to communicate the message in a clear and concise manner,” King added.  “It’s not possible for all of FDA’s stances to make it into every news release, but that doesn’t change our policy.”

Siobhan DeLancey, with FDA public affairs staff, says it’s “a simple and not very mysterious explanation,” adding: “As we have been stating since the outbreak in Europe, FDA does consider any disease-causing strain of E. coli in food to be illegal.”

DeLancey, in an email to Food Safety News publisher Bill Marler, said “In retrospect, we should have put up a note explaining that an earlier draft had been posted and was subsequently replaced with the final version.” She says she is talking to her superiors about explaining such revisions in the future.

When the change was noticed — about a month later — the agency was slow to come up with an explanation for why it had removed a simple, bold statement about E. coli policy.

That caused many in the food safety community, in Washington and around the country, to speculate — had FDA been slapped down by outside forces?  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture still bans only E. coli O157:H7 from ground beef, not the six other most common Shiga toxin-producing strains of E. coli (STEC) in the U.S.  Two White House offices, Management and Budget and the U.S. Trade Representative, are now considering whether additional STEC bacteria should also be considered adulterants in meat.

According to the FDA, the first version of its June 3 press release was posted at 5:05 p.m., and the edited version, which dropped the statement about disease-causing E. coli, replaced it at 6:01 p.m.  

At the time the unedited version was published, there was intense worldwide focus on the Euro outbreak. The June 3 statement was the first made by the FDA about the O104:H4 epidemic in Germany. With such intense interest, it’s no surprise that the agency’s original version was quickly picked up and replicated by news services around the world.