Tuesday, September 13, 2011

USDA Bans Six Strains Of E. coli From Beef

Hamburger Helper: New ban makes deadly pathogens illegal in beef trim and components...but ground beef won't be tested, and it's unclear what the impact will be on millions of pounds of imported beef... 
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that the US Department of Agriculture will add six serogroups of pathogenic E. coli to its list of declared adulterants in "non-intact raw beef." The new rule will go into effect on March 5, 2012, and make it illegal to sell certain cuts of beef found to contain what have been dubbed the Big Six: E. coli O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145.

During a conference call with reporters, Vilsack and Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen hailed the new rule as an important move for protecting American consumers, and spoke about the dangers of consuming pink or medium rare hamburgers, because the Big Six can survive the cooking process and make consumers ill. President Obama, a big hamburger lover, has long been safe from this danger: "I'm a medium well guy," he announced during a White House cookout. But the President's constituents can now rest easy. The new zero tolerance policy "is a really significant step for American families," Hagen said. (At top: The President enjoys a burger during his most legendary burger run, with Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev at Ray's hell Burger in Virginia)

Big Six responsible for big percentage of foodborne disease; ground beef won't be tested...
USDA has classified E. coli O157:H7 as an "adulterant" and banned the sale of beef containing it since 1994, following a foodborne disease outbreak from Jack in the Box, Vilsack said, which killed four children and sickened thousands more. But the Secretary noted that the Centers for Disease Control has found that the Big Six pathogens are responsible for the majority of foodborne hospitalizations and deaths.

"It's estimated that over 112,000 annual foodborne illnesses occur each year as a result of non-0157 pathogens, twice the rate of O157:H7," Vilsack said. "We estimate at USDA that more than 36,000 of these illnesses are attributable to beef."

The Big Six "possess the same molecular arsenal as 0157," Hagen said.

"All of these are capable of killing people," she added.

Still, processors will only be required to test beef trim and whole beef components for the Big Six, not ground beef, Vilsack and Hagen said.

USDA gets "our biggest bang for our buck" by testing beef trim and components rather than ground beef, Hagen noted, because these are then ground into hamburger meat.

"We'll look at extending" testing to ground beef in the future, Hagen said, after USDA evaluates information on trim and component testing. But requirements for expanding the testing to include ground beef will require a new notice in the Federal Register, she said.

The Big Six can cause everything from diarrhea to the most extreme form of illness, Hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which causes kidney failure, anemia, and death, as the pathogens multiply in the blood and destroy internal organs. Even a tiny amount of pathogen can make consumers profoundly ill. Children under five and the elderly are most at risk for illness and death, and the strains can cause both primary and secondary infections--meaning that someone who has not consumed contaminated meat can also become ill after having contact with an individual who is infected.

FDA has long banned the sale of foods it monitors from containing the Big Six, but USDA has been slower to act, though some Big Six pathogens have been responsible for recent large-scale foodborne disease outbreaks. Today's announcement comes after years of debate and study, pressure from food safety advocates--and pushback from the meat industry, due to a variety of concerns, including the cost of testing.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler, partner in Seattle's Marler Clark law firm, is among the many food safety advocates that have been aggressively lobbying USDA for years to ban the Big Six, and praised today's announcement.

"It's a very progressive move," Marler told Obama Foodorama. "It will have a profound positive impact on public health in reducing foodborne illness."

Marler was the attorney who prosecuted the Jack in the Box case, receiving a landmark settlement for survivors. He started privately testing retail meat samples for the Big Six in 2008, doing 5,000 tests in in a wide range of states, at a cost of $500,000. The tests found that 1.1 % of samples were positive for the Big Six. He turned this data over to USDA, which used it to arrive at today's announcement.

Both Vilsack and Hagen said that USDA is confident that the lab tests developed for the Big Six are now as state-of-the-art as the tests that have been in use for O157:H7. The testing components and protocols have the same turn-around time as those for O157:H7, about three days. Costco, Vilsack said, is among the major retailers who already test for pathogens other than O157:H7.

The costs...and foreign inspections...
Vilsack said the program will cost USDA's Food Safety and Inspection service between $500,00 and $750,000 annually. There are about 8,000 inspectors charged with inspecting the billions of pounds of beef that are produced annually in the US.

The US also imports about a billion pounds of beef annually, from Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. During the conference call, Vilsack sidestepped a question about how imported beef will be monitored for the Big Six.

"We are convinced that what's coming into the country is equivalent in terms of testing and safety to that which we have in this country," Vilsack said. "So we will certainly work with our import partners to make sure that they understand the importance of this."

NOT included in USDA's Big Six ban is E. coli 0104:H4, which was responsible for the foodborne disease outbreak that originated in Germany this summer, which killed 54 people and sickened thousands more.

"It is absolutely here," Marler said of the strain. Six US citizens visiting Germany were among those who became ill this summer.

In June, FDA chief Margaret Hamburg issued "Pathway to Global Product Safety and Food Quality, a report that called for a dramatic boost in America's efforts at monitoring and testing all imported foods.

Will salmonella be added to the ban?
Vilsack declined to comment on whether or not the new Big Six ban will expand in the future to include anti-biotic resistant Salmonella, the pathogen responsible for a massive ground turkey recall from Cargill in August, one of the largest in US history. 36 million pounds of turkey were recalled nationwide, with illnesses verified in 31 states. Last week, Cargill announced Round II of the recall, adding an additional 185,000 pounds of ground turkey to its list.

CDC has identified salmonella as being responsible for most foodborne disease outbreaks in the US.

USDA's plans were first revealed on Monday, and pushback from the meat industry was immediate. The American Meat Institute (AMI), which represents large meatpackers, said in a statement that the USDA's announcement that “it will soon be ‘illegal’ to have six strains of naturally occurring non-O157 E. coli in ground beef is premised upon the notion that the government can make products safe by banning a pathogen."

"That view is not supported by science," the AMI said.

Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-CT-3) a long-time food safety advocate, was among lawmakers who praised the plan.

“I am thrilled that the USDA will at last recognize these six devastating strains of E. coli as adulterants, as this new rule will help to protect American consumers from known deadly pathogens. It is a critical step forward in bettering our food safety system, DeLauro said in a statement.

Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) also issued a statement praising USDA.

“Today, we finally took action to keep contaminated food from reaching our dinner tables, kitchens, and restaurants. Properly testing our food will help protect our families, save lives and prevent many illnesses and future outbreaks," Gillibrand said.

The Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention applauded USDA, saying that the adulterant label “means there will be zero tolerance for these strains of E. coli — known as the Big Six — in certain beef products.”

After the Big Six rule is published in the Federal Register, it will be open for pubic comment for sixty days.

Vilsack co-chairs the President's Food Safety Working Group, established in 2009, and said the new rule is an expansion of the group's ongoing food safety efforts.

*Photo by Pete Souza/White House