As the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves to ban the sale of meat tainted with six serotypes of E. coli, companies will likely feel pressure to implement screening programs for these rarer pathogens – perhaps a daunting prospect for firms who think such measures are costly and won’t make the food supply any safer. But the handful of businesses who already have non-O157 testing in place say it’s worthwhile, and relatively easy to adopt.
Costco Wholesale Corporation was one of the first companies to start testing its food for non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs), a program it launched in August of last year. By July 2011 the company was requiring all its suppliers to test their final products for the “Big Six” E. coli serotypes, as well as E. coli O104:H4, the strain responsible for the outbreak in Europe this spring that caused over 4,000 illnesses and 50 deaths on the continent.
Says Craig Wilson, the company’s director of food safety, “Costco is testing for EHECs [Enterohemorragic E. coli such as the European strain], and we think that’s of equal importance so that we get all of them and we get as many as there are tests for.”
Adding such testing does not involve too much structural change if a company already has E. coli O157:H7 testing in place, Wilson says. “It’s just a matter of incorporating that into your normal O157:H7 testing. It’s not that big a deal.”
Craig Letch, director of quality assurance at Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the country’s leading producer of lean beef, says the company’s move to non-O157 testing this July was also a smooth one.
“Based off the current systems we have in place to manage inventory, and our hold and test program, it was fairly easy to implement an additional task,” he told Food Safety News.
“Obviously, the sample size is larger and there are some things that had to be done in terms of expansion of the current hold and test program, but based on the systems that we have in place, when the kits were available we started working with the labs,” explained Rich Jocum, corporate administrator for BPI.
Hold and test is the method companies use to make sure that tested product doesn’t leave the facility before it has been cleared. Product is stored while samples from that lot are tested, and then released to the market if the results come back negative.
This process creates a potential roadblock for companies who sell fresh meat and are concerned that meat will go bad while they wait for test results. However, says David Theno, the former senior vice president of quality and logistics at Jack In the Box, test results should take only one and one-half to two days to return, and that should not affect ground beef patties.
“It’s no longer than the O157 work they’re doing today,” he explains.
Another concern voiced by opponents of the new rule is the cost of the testing program, which they say will be an added burden for taxpayers. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, however, says the added cost to USDA will be $500,000 to $750,000 annually, and will be covered by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) budget.
And while non-O157 testing might add an extra step or cost for companies along the way, such testing has already proven effective in protecting public health by preventing contaminated product from entering the market.
“We’ve done a total of a little more than 2,500 samples, and we have detected [non-O157 E. coli] and diverted it,” says Letch.
“The cost associated with it is not the driving factor in our minds,” he continued. “It is something we’re looking at, but I don’t think that’s really, in our opinion, relevant to the program.”
The Time Is Right
So why now? What prompted some companies to take the initiative to test for these bugs, and why is FSIS now holding companies accountable for making sure products are free of all dangerous E. coli?
One factor is that it is now easier to test for these six most common forms of non-O157 E. coli. Theno, who helped design Jack in the Box’s industry-leading food safety program after the devastating E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 1993, says that testing for non-O157 E. coli would not have been an industry-wide option until recently, because it was limited mainly to research labs.
Now that test kits for the bacteria are widely available on the commercial market, they are a feasible option for food producers, who can easily take samples and send them to labs for processing.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the reason we’re able to move ahead is because we have kits available,” he says.
In its announcement of its intention to test for non-O157 E. coli, BPI stated, “Protocols have been developed to test for these six strains and a sufficient supply of test kits are now available to sustain BPI’s testing program.”
And while BPI had been considering testing for serotypes other than O157, it was the European E. coli outbreak that spurred the company to put the program into action.
“When the German outbreak occurred, it definitely had us go back to the testing manufacturers, find out where they were on a commercial availability of the kits and then ultimately make the decision that we were prepared to start testing,” said Letch.
Will Non-O157 Testing Become An Industry Standard?
Now that the USDA has announced its intention to list these six previously unregulated serotypes of E. coli as adulterants, it will be up to meat companies to ensure that products are free of them.
For this reason, Theno predicts, testing for non-O157 will become an industry-wide practice among meat and poultry producers.
“The fact that they’ve deemed it an adulterant and are going to be looking for it, even if it’s at a monitoring level, means that if you’re prudent you’re going to be looking for it, too,” he says.
So far, the only companies that have announced that they have non-O157 tesing programs in place are Costco, BPI and Earthbound Farm.
However, industry insiders suggest that a number of fast food restaurants and several leading grocery chains also have plans for this type of screening program in the works.
The FSIS proposal will be available for comment for 60 days, and the final rule is expected to take effect in March of 2012 for testing beef trimmings, which are used to make ground beef, and then later for ground beef and other meats.