The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new, groundbreaking non-O157 E. coli policy, which classifies six new strains as adulterants and requires testing, will become effective 90 days later than originally planned, the Food Safety and Inspection Service announced Wednesday.

The delay, which did not surprise industry insiders, will push back the routine sampling of the six additional STEC serogroups, O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145, to June 4, from the original deadline of March 5.

FSIS said the purpose of the extension is to “provide additional time for establishments to validate their test methods and detect these pathogens prior to entering the stream of commerce.”

The agency is planning to initially sample raw beef manufacturing trimmings and other raw ground beef product components produced domestically and imported, and test the samples for the serogroups.

If these products test positive for non-O157 STECs, they will be prevented from entering commerce — in the same way that E. coli O157: H7 has been treated since 1994.

“Consumers deserve a modernized food safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, in a statement to Food Safety News. “As non-O157 STEC bacteria have emerged and evolved, so too must our regulatory policies to protect the public health and ensure the safety of our food supply. CDC and other Federal agencies reported that the incidence rate of confirmed cases of non-O157 STEC illnesses exceeded the incidence of O157:H7 cases for the first time. These bacteria cause severe illnesses and can cause illnesses in small concentrations, so we are acting responsibly to ensure they are not in the food Americans serve their families.”

“This policy represents a major advancement for public health,” said FSIS in the announcement Wednesday.

The American Meat Institute, the group representing companies that process the vast majority of American beef, disagrees. While AMI lauded the delay in implementation as a “good first step,” the group also again criticized the new policy.

“As we have maintained since the initial announcement by FSIS, this new policy is not supported by science and likely will not benefit public health,” said James Hodges, executive vice president at AMI, in a statement. 

“Even with a 90 day delay, imposing this new regulatory program in June puts the cart before the horse and will needlessly cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars – costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers,” added Hodges. “In short, the policy is not likely to yield a significant public health benefit and given that research should precede and dictate the policy, the process that FSIS has followed in this matter is no way to develop good public policy.”  

While most in the industry agree that more time is needed to calibrate testing programs, not everyone is opposed to the new policy.

Costco, for example, has been testing for non-O157 STECs in ground beef since August 2010. The company’s director of food safety, Craig Wilson, believes FSIS is doing the right thing and told Food Safety News that the testing does not make beef at Costco more expensive than elsewhere, in part because the company processes 1.4 million pounds of ground beef and hot dogs per day and can easily spread testing costs.

“I’m really surprised at AMI’s comments,” said Wilson, adding that he agreed the delay would help meat companies to improve their testing systems. “I’m fully supportive of what USDA’s doing here.”

“I happen to agree with a lot of folks when they say that the interventions will knock out all the STECs. Here’s where we differ: I want to prove it,” he said. “It truly is a public health issue.”

Consumer groups aren’t alarmed about the delay either, as long as the policy moves forward.

“While we are disappointed that FSIS has decided to delay the implementation of the enforcement of the new non-0157 STEC policy, we understand that the testing methodology needs to be valid for such enforcement to take place,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch. “We sincerely hope that this will be the last delay in the implementation of this important consumer protection.”

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.