In an effort to safeguard the food supply and prevent foodborne illness, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last week that six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli will be declared adulterants in non-intact raw beef.
Current regulations ban the sale of ground beef containing E. coli O157:H7, a virulent strain of bacteria that has caused death, illnesses and the recall of millions of pounds of ground beef and other products.
But, as a result this new action, the USDA will also ban the sale of ground beef containing any of a half-dozen additional E. coli strains which are known as the "Big Six non-057s" and which can also cause severe illness and death.
"The impact of foodborne illness on a family can be devastating," said Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen. "Consumers deserve a modernized food safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats. 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."
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will begin testing for these six serogroups of STEC and enforcing the new policy on March 5, 2012.
Not everyone supports these new regulations.
James H. Hodges, Executive Vice President of the American Meat Institute, expressed concern that this major announcement was not accompanied by a public health risk assessment.
"USDA's declaration of six nSTEC as adulterants in beef is neither warranted nor justified by the science," he said in a statement. "Perspective on this issue is badly needed. nSTEC have caused illnesses, but nSTEC in ground beef have only been directly linked to one outbreak involving three illnesses. CDC estimates that 48 million foodborne illnesses occur in the U.S. annually and nSTEC from all food sources account for 112,000 illness, yet federal resources are being devoted only to STEC in beef products that account for less than 0.1 percent of total foodborne illnesses. While we all wish that number were zero, considering that more than a billion servings of ground beef are consumed annually, that is an excellent safety record."
As The New York Times points out, after the USDA banned E. coli O157:H7 from ground beef in 1994, the meat industry sued to block the move, but the agency prevailed in court.