Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen touted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to declare the six most common non-O157 serotypes of E. coli adulterants if they show up in non-intact raw beef.

They made their remarks during a briefing Tuesday, after the announcement was widely reported in the media Monday.

“The Obama Administration is committed to protecting our food supply and preventing illnesses before they happen,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Today’s announcement does exactly that by targeting and eliminating contaminated products from the market.”

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) policy will make E. coli O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 illegal contaminates in raw non-intact beef — including ground beef, beef trim and tenderized steaks. USDA officials said Tuesday they will begin by testing beef trim, and then evaluate the next steps for testing.

“We’ll begin testing beef trim initially because that’s where we get the biggest bang for our buck,” Dr. Hagen told reporters. Beef trim is used to make ground beef.

“The impact of foodborne illness on a family can be devastating,” said Hagen. “Consumers deserve a modernized food safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats. As non-O157 STEC (Shiga toxin-producing E. coli) bacteria have emerged and evolved, so too must our regulatory policies to protect the public health and ensure the safety of our food supply.”

Vilsack emphasized that USDA was acting preemptively instead of waiting for a devastating outbreak.

“Too often, we are caught reacting to a problem instead of preventing it,” said Vilsack. “This new policy will help stop problems before they start.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the six additional strains of E. coli being targeted cause approximately 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually in the United States.

As Food Safety News reported yesterday, the reaction from consumer groups has been unanimously positive, while meat industry groups maintain the policy is not based in science and will likely not benefit public health.

  • ecofoodologist

    I commend those who earnestly seek to make food safer and I think banning these organisms from consumables is a step in the right direction.
    But what is the logical result? Certainly more litigation, and a clearer definition of due diligence. Over time this just becomes an included “cost of doing business” and each person who contracts a new illness is SOL until that new pathogen is recognized and “declared.”
    How about the fact that there is no certainty in detecting tomorrow’s new strain of toxic microbe? (Remember that STEC probably didn’t exist thirty years ago.) The problem is always some chain of exposure to a sea of mammals and feces. The bugs are not the real problem, it’s the ag practices.
    The vast majority of Americans spend less than 10% of income on food, compared to a world where billions of people spend over 50% of income on food. Yet all this (intensive ag) happens in the name of growing cheaper “food.” We can only do this because of intensive ag practices that put mediocre food in contact with feces.
    If one agrees with most people that driving clean farms out of business for industrial farms is the way to go, then let’s do it with some intention. Demand real teeth in regulation and fund it well. Don’t forgive growers who let feces meet consumable product. Put them out of business in short order and prevent them from joining again. Does the industry shame bad practices by demerit, or circle the wagons to protect perpetrators. We see some of the former shaming, until bad ag practices are incorporated into each next generation of “best management practices” or BMPs.
    As fewer farms (armed with legal defense of BMPs) serve the rising demand for cattle product, barn ecosystems select for more hardy microbes. The resolution of this is a cleaner ag practice; reducing the concentration of cattle.
    Less intensive cattle management WILL be the eventual answer. If corporate ag has its way, the re-emergence of low intensity ag will occur when small farms, uncommitted to the 9B people in Codex Alimentarius, are buried by urban sprawl. Then the next generation of Americans can celebrate a triumph of “free markets” and feel like rebels for accepting less toxic food from those who most recently invented it. Every dollar we fork over for BigAg commodities moves us another millimeter toward their complete control of our calories, and puts another real farmer closer to subdividing his property. Know your farmer. Know your food… irrespective of USDA funding cuts. ef

  • “Certainly more litigation, and a clearer definition of due diligence.”
    I actually expect to see less litigation as more products are tested for pathogens that can sicken or kill and never make it on the market.
    That in fact is the history of E. coli O157:H7 in beef. E. coli O157:H7 cases related to beef are down – and that is a good thing.