Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Wednesday highlighted the need to test meat for non-O157 strains of E. coli bacteria.
to a group of scientists and industry members at the International
Association for Food Protection conference in Milwaukee, Vilsack said
the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is prepared to expand its
testing program beyond E. coli O157:H7 – the only strain for which it
currently screens – to include other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli
(STECs), which can cause severe illness in humans.
the six most common non-O157 E. coli serotypes, also known as the “Big
Six,” which include E. coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145, account
for almost two-thirds of E. coli illnesses in the U.S. each year,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
January USDA submitted a draft policy to the White House Office of
Management and Budget (OMB) proposing that non-O157 STECs be declared
adulterants, and therefore illegal, in meat and poultry.
has yet to be approved. However, Vilsack says, “[OMB is] actively
working with us to move this through the process and finalize a policy
that will supported by the best science. And I’m hopeful that we’ll be
able to announce this progress very very soon.”
For food safety advocates, such a decision has been a long time in coming.
I have great respect for Secretary Vilsack, I expected nothing of
import from this speech,” said leading food poisoning attorney Bill
Marler, publisher of Food Safety News. “I am frankly stunned, but heartened, by his words about pathogenic E. coli. His words need to be turned into action.”
In 2009, Marler filed a petition with the government asking that all non-O157 STECs be named food adulterants.
Vilsack recognizes that the government has been slow in taking action against non-O157 STECs.
know that it has taken some time – much to the frustration of many in
this room, those in Congress, and most importantly…the American
public,” said Vilsack. “But by taking this issue seriously, the
scientific, advocacy and government communities have created the
atmosphere so that when we do announce a new policy to protect consumers
from non O157 STECs, everyone from the government and the industry
hopefully will be ready to embrace it.”
struggle to adopt non-O157 policy is an example of a larger need for a
faster food safety policymaking system, said Vilsack, who expressed
concern that lawmaking often lags behind scientific developments.
isn’t happening more rapidly,” he said. “We have all of this data, all
of this information, all of these groups that are crunching these
numbers and we’re learning about this stuff every day at a rapid rate
and we have an antiquated 19th century system that takes forever to get
to a point where you regulate something or declare something adulterant.
That adulterant’s already moved on, and you never catch up.”
said USDA is also making changes in the way Food Safety and Inspection
Service (FSIS) responds after it finds E. coli O157 in ground beef, and
that a new policy should be announced soon on tracebacks:
beef follows a long and complex processing chain, and we need a better
system for tracing back contaminated product in that chain quickly.
Until October of last year, FSIS waited until after there was a positive
E. coli result to get details on a product. Now, FSIS requires
inspectors to record information about the supplier and the source of
that beef when they take samples of trim and ground beef for E. coli
“But we have more to do in this area.
I’ve directed FSIS to develop a new policy that looks at how we can
change our actions after we find a product that tests positive for O157.
90 days, I expect the agency to announce the first step in transforming
our traceback policy. I’ve also instructed FSIS to complete a pilot
study on new technologies and sampling methods that help us test ground
beef and trim more quickly and efficiently. If we hold industry
accountable for safe food, then our tests and sampling methods must be
the best available.”