When it comes to our nation’s Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) policy, some people like to wrestle in the mud. I like to wrestle with the science. And the science does not support the need for a new USDA policy, now set to go into effect in June.
At AMI, we regularly review microbiological testing trends, public health data and peer reviewed research to guide our work. The data do not indicate that non-O157 STEC in beef products pose an urgent or unique public health threat.
USDA officials argue in favor of the policy, saying that the incidence rate of estimated cases of non-O157 STEC illnesses exceeded the incidence of O157:H7 cases for the first time, but this statistic misses an extremely significant point that most of those illnesses were actually sourced from foods other than beef. According to available records, there was one E. coli O26 foodborne outbreak in 2010 that may have been related to ground beef. Three illnesses were associated with that outbreak. There have been no other outbreaks from non-O157 STEC in beef among the more than 14,000 total foodborne outbreaks that have been documented in the U.S. over the past decade.
We must remain valiant and constantly be open to new ideas, but if I ever doubt the foundation of AMI’s position, I simply look at the available public health data and I am again firm in my conviction. I can’t find a scientific way to rationalize the path USDA is taking.
Perhaps that’s because research has shown that the interventions and process control systems that have so effectively reduced E. coli O157:H7 also work against the six other strains now in the spotlight.
If for whatever reason you’re skeptical of my words, consider these from some leading experts, including those who reviewed USDA’s Draft Risk Profile:
• “We note that the illnesses associated with these strains have not primarily been due to contamination on beef.” -FSIS Federal Register Final Determination
• [There is no] “Evidence that declaring six serotypes of non-O157 STEC adulterants would have any public health benefit. As it is, the evidence suggests that contamination with these serotypes is prevented or eliminated by exactly the same interventions that are currently in place to prevent or eliminate O157 STEC contamination. In the absence of additional interventions that would specifically affect non-O157 STEC, declaring them adulterants is not likely to have any public health benefit.” -Peer Reviewer 1, FSIS Draft Risk Profile:
• “We reviewed the estimates of foodborne illness, major pathogens and specified sources, papers. For the volume of data, severity of illness, our ability to measure change, and we concluded that the non-O157 E. coli, at this point in time, was not on par with the other pathogens as far as understanding and implementing interventions to reduce them.” –Dr. Mark Hoekstra, CDC, CDC/FSIS/FDA Foodborne Illness Source Attribution Public Meeting, January 31, 2012.
Given these legitimate questions from our government agencies about the public health risk posed by these STEC in ground beef and the potential benefits of the policy, how is proceeding with it justified?
The good news is that USDA recently took a major step to better understand these STEC– an action AMI has been arguing for years is needed. The five year, $25 million grant USDA awarded to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln last month to study STEC in beef will provide some of the needed research regarding analyzing the risks of STEC in the beef supply and developing validated test methods. It’s the kind of work that should have been the first step, however. Science should be the engine that drives the train — not the caboose.
Our goal is to ensure that every eating experience involving meat products is a safe one. To achieve that, we must confront the scientific facts, and when we do that, they tell us this policy is simply without a sound foundation. And that’s a view that USDA’s own experts and risk reviewers share because like me, they have truly wrestled with the science.
James H. Hodges is American Meat Institute Executive Vice President.