In a public teleconference Thursday, the meat industry roundly criticized the government’s new plan to test beef trim and ground beef for six more strains of pathogenic E. coli in addition to O157:H7 – the only one now considered an adulterant.
Consumer groups, however, cautioned against any delay.
On Sept. 12, the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced its intention to begin testing beef for six strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli — O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 — collectively known as the Big Six. The agency had considered the issue for about four years.
Testing is scheduled to begin in March, which meat producers say is too soon.
During the hour-long teleconference, they said more must be known about the problem of non-O157 Shiga Toxin-Producing (STEC) E. coli, including how many illnesses these bugs cause that are directly related to meat.
Current methods to control for O157:H7 are adequate to also prevent these other bacteria from contaminating the meat supply, argued the American Meat Institute’s executive vice president, James Hodges.
“In-plant food-safety technologies do not discriminate; they destroy all strains of E. coli,” Hodges said. “USDA is proposing a solution in search of a problem.”
Several beef exporters joined in the teleconference, saying their countries don’t see the six STECs as a major problem and that the testing requirement could disrupt trade. A representative from the Meat Importer Council of America noted that World Trade Organization rules require food-safety regulations to be grounded in science, adding “It’s our view that the determination of the other six STECs to be adulterants is not justified by the data and is premature in its implementation.”
Meat producers also voiced concern that the costs to industry will be much greater than FSIS has predicted.
“We believe the agency has dramatically underestimated the cost of compliance for the beef industry, especially those smaller firms, based upon the content of the notice and the comments of FSIS officials in recent public settings,” said Joe Harris, president and CEO of the Southwest Meat Association.
Hodges said AMI estimates trim testing alone will cost more than $100 million a year and that ground beef testing could be as much as $300 million annually.
Finally, industry representatives said, current testing systems for the Big Six serotypes are still imperfect, resulting in too many false positives.
“We’re concerned that there are not testing methodologies widely available that have been thoroughly field tested and validated in a plant environment,” said Harris. “We strongly urge FSIS to delay implementation of the new policy long enough to allow the technology development to catch up.”
But consumer advocates say this is the right move, and it should not be delayed. Two thirds of all E. coli illnesses come from these bugs, they point out, according to CDC data published this January. The CDC estimates that non-0157 E. coli serotypes cause about 112,000 illnesses each year and that beef is implicated in about 36,700 of those cases.
“The current discussion on the need for and access to microbial test methods is a very important one. And we urge FSIS to proceed as rapidly as possible to implement effective controls on emerging pathogens in the meat supply, including these six strains of E. coli,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The new pathogen regulations should include a built-in system for continually reassessing the dangers of different foodborne pathogens in order to account for new ones that may arise as a threat to public health, said DeWaal.
“This type of ongoing process would make the FSIS approach to these pathogens much more proactive than it is today.”
FSIS has extended the comment period for its proposed rule on non-O157 E. coli until December 21, 2011. Dr. Daniel Engeljohn said the FSIS will respond to public comments in the Federal Register between Jan. 1 and March 5, and announce at that time whether it will proceed with the plan to begin testing beef trim.