Ground beef sold to Americans is going to undergo more E. coli testing in 2012, and the historic decision to require it was 2011’s 4th more important food safety story.

For the first time since 1994, when the E. coli strain O157; H7 was banned from meat, six more serotypes of the pathogen were declared as adulterants by Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In announcing her decision — widely anticipated but mostly opposed by America’s $74 billion beef industry — Dr. Hagen said:  “This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time.  We’re doing this to prevent illness and save lives.”

The additional strains being banned from non-intact beef are E. coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145.   

They’re often referred to collectively as “the Big Six.”  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the six strains are responsible for 40,000 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths annually.

Hagen’s decision was in response to a formal petition filed on behalf of victims of non-O157 E coli strains by food safety attorney Bill Marler, who is also publisher of Food Safety News.

The American Meat Institute, representing big beef processors, has tried to stop and more recently delay listing the Big Six.  James H. Hodges, AMI’s executive vice president, says banning the six pathogenic E. coli strains from ground beef is a “solution in search of a problem.”

Not surprisingly, AMI is now trying delaying tactics to put off implementation of new testing. 

Like any federal rule-making process, there is now  a regulatory process underway. That’s given time for even Australia and New Zealand to weigh in with objections to more testing.

Nevertheless, sometime in 2012, a system should be in place to prevent these toxin-producing bacteria from reaching consumers.