Six dangerous strains of E. coli — dubbed “the Big Six” — will soon be banned from the beef supply, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said Monday.

“This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time,” Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, told the New York Times. “We’re doing this to prevent illness and to save lives.”

The proposal, which will be outlined in more detail by top USDA officials Tuesday morning, will declare six additional strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs), beyond well-known E. coli O157:H7, as adulterants in beef, making product contaminated with these pathogens illegal to sell in commerce. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will soon test ground beef, beef trim that goes into ground beef, and machine-tenderized steaks for these pathogens.

E. coli O157:H7 has been illegal in beef products since 1994, a policy that was put in place in response to the historic outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed four children in the Pacific Northwest. The new policy, which will extend to E coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145, is expected to kick in in March.

The meat industry did not react warmly to the announcement, while consumer groups unanimously praised the move.

“USDA’s announcement today that it will soon be ‘illegal’ to have six strains of naturally occurring non-O157 E. coli in ground beef is premised upon the notion that the government can make products safe by banning a pathogen,” said James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, the group representing the vast majority of the meat industry. “That view is not supported by science.”

AMI believes the interventions currently used to eliminate E. coli O157:H7 will work for the non-O157 strains and slammed USDA for adding costs that it said will eventually be passed along to consumers.

 “USDA will spend millions of dollars testing for these strains instead of using those limited resources toward preventive strategies that are far more effective in ensuring food safety,” added Hodges, in a statement to reporters. “Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars – costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers.  It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy.”

Food safety advocates, many of whom have been lobbying USDA to take action on non-O157 E. coli strains for years, lauded the announcement and argued that the policy may well help the meat industry by preventing costly recalls.

“This is a huge step,” said Dr. Barbara Kowalcyk, CEO of the Center for Food Borne Illness Research and Prevention, who became a tireless advocate after her son lost his life from an E.coli O157:H7-contaminated hamburger. “We think this is going to have a significant impact on public health — fewer recalls, fewer illnesses, fewer deaths.”

Kowalcyk believes the policy is actually a bargain, when you weigh the costs and benefits. USDA estimates that the new rule could cost the meat industry as much as $10 million annually, not just for testing but also for cooking meat that tests positive before it hits store shelves.

“The average cost of a recall is $4-5 million plus the loss in consumer confidence,” added Kowalyck. “Preventing just two recalls could make up for the cost. And that’s not even taking into account the human costs.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the six strains addressed under the new regulation cause approximately 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually in the United States.

Nancy Donley, co-founder of STOP Foodborne Illness, whose son died in 1993 from an E. coli O157:H7 infection, was also very pleased with the announcement.

“All of us at STOP Foodborne Illness are absolutely thrilled to have the big six declared adulterants,” said Donley in an email. “It’s something that we have been advocating for years now.  We’re pleased to see the USDA act progressively in putting forward an initiative that should greatly enhance public health and safety rather than waiting for another major foodborne illness outbreak to spur them to action.”

USDA’s announcement comes two years after Bill Marler, managing partner at Marler Clark, the nation’s leading food safety law firm (and publisher of Food Safety News), petitioned the department to declare all non-O157 STECs as adulterants.  

“I’m really pleased,” said Marler. “This is going to go a long way towards making our food supply safer.”
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a staunch supporter of tougher food safety laws, echoed the praise, saying she was “thrilled” by the decision.
“It is a critical step forward in bettering our food safety system,” said DeLauro in a statement. “When a similar action was taken on E. coli O157:H7, its prevalence decreased by nearly fourfold, and I hope to see a similar result with these six strains. I applaud this new rule, and hope to continue enhancing the USDA’s ability to protect American consumers from unsafe food.”