At the meat industry’s recent E. coli conference in Chicago, the USDA’s decision to ban six more strains of toxic E. coli, in addition to O157, was much-anticipated and even specifically predicted.

But like in the old E.F. Hutton television commercials, when Kansas State University’s James Marsden talked about it, everybody listened.

In carefully presented remarks, Marsden seemed to deliver two messages. To government, he was for not moving too quickly — as some say the USDA is doing today — hinting that mandating expanded testing could put the meat industry into a crisis. To the industry, however, he could not have been more clear about potential contamination by non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, which he referred to as nSTECs.

“Regardless of potential FSIS actions on nSTECs, it is in the interest of the beef industry to address the issue of nSTECs before it explodes into a major public health crisis,” Marsden stated on one of his presentation slides.

On the eve of today’s announcement, Food Safety News got back to the KState beef expert to allow him to “revise and extend” his remarks.

“I don’t believe it (listing the Big Six)  will result in a crisis, ” he said.

“The interventions already in place to control E. coli O157:H7 are apparently effective at controlling STECs as well. There is no public health crisis, so I don’t think we will see recalls resulting from outbreaks. 

“As long as processors hold product and don’t let it into commerce until a negative test result is reported, the new policy shouldn’t result in a major disruption across the beef industry.” 

In Chicago, Marsden, science advisor to the North American Meat Processors Association, stressed “what we don’t know” about nSTECs.  For example, he said:

  • No one really knows how prevalent these nSTECs are in nature or in the food supply.

  • We don’t know for certain whether the same interventions that are effective for E. coli O157:H7 will also inactivate nSTEC strains of bacteria.

  • We don’t know to what extent nSTECs are associated with beef.

Marsden says that the food safety systems already in place for E. coli O157:H7 might already be effectively controlling nSTECs as well but, if so, that will now have to be proven.

He thinks there should have been a national baseline study and risk assessment conducted before the listing, and said research will be needed to validate effective interventions.

Marsden says “industry initiatives” like nSTEC testing by Costco and Beef Products Inc. (BPI) are building a baseline “that will improve our understanding of the prevalence of these organisms in beef products and also whether existing interventions will prevent their presence in consumer beef products.”