A who’s who of meat industry groups petitioned USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack last week to demand a delay in implementing the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s proposed policy regarding mandatory testing for non-O157 E. coli strains in raw meat products. The new rule, set to begin in March, declared six additional serotypes of pathogenic E. coli (O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145) as adulterants in raw meat products.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those six non-O157 strains annually cause more than 36,000 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in the United States.

The coalition, which included key trade groups from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Uruguay, stated concerns about the impact of the new rule on export-import trade and the cost to industry of implementing what is considered to be a negligible public health benefit.

“Given that STEC (shiga toxin producing E. coli) other than E. coli O157:H7 are not considered a major public health concern within countries such as Australia, New Zealand, among others, and that the majority of non-E. coli O157 STEC infections are attributed to non-beef food sources, coupled with the infirmities of the Draft Risk Profile, legitimate WTO questions exist,” the groups contended in their letter.

“In very plain terms, implementing this policy is premature,” the American Meat Institute noted in a statement, citing the lack of data confirming that the new strains are a serious hazard. “It is not clear whether on net there will be a reduction in the number of illnesses,” the industry’s letter stated.

AMI Executive Vice President James H. Hodges noted that, “In-plant food safety technologies do not discriminate; they destroy all strains of E. coli. USDA is proposing a solution in search of a problem.”

The Canadian Meat Council, which represents beef exporters to the United States, complained as well.

“In a country where we don’t see the six STECs as critically as they are viewed in the U.S., we’d like to exempt Canadian products shipped to the U.S. from these rules,” said Brian Reed, a CMC director and past president and an executive at XL Foods in Markham, Ontario.

Risk vs. reality

So are they right?

Dr. James Marsden, professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University and senior science advisor for the North American Meat Processors association, acknowledged that FSIS deserves credit for addressing the potential public health risks associated with non-O157 STECs.

In a recent presentation to industry organized by NAMP, by Dan Engeljohn, FSIS Deputy Administrator for Policy, noted that the strategic interventions already in place at slaughter and processing plant to control E. coli O157:H7 would also be effective at controlling STECs.

“I agree with their position,” Marsden wrote on his Meatingplace blog, “and research is beginning to come forward that supports that theory.”

But here’s the problem, as Marsden stated it: “Most slaughter plants do have effective interventions in place to address contamination on beef carcasses [but] they certainly aren’t perfect and there is always room for improved additional interventions.”

The interventions currently in place “reduce but don’t eliminate” the risk of E. coli O157:H7 and other STECs in beef cuts and trimming, Marsden wrote. “In order to truly get a handle on pathogen contamination in beef products, [these] slaughter interventions must be supplemented with further processing interventions.”

Marsden argued that some type of carcass pasteurization technology will ultimately be required to eliminate the risk from O157:H7 and other STECs. “Unfortunately,” he noted, “a true pasteurization step is not yet available.”

Were such an intervention available, it would likely eliminate the need for additional regulatory mandates regarding additional E. coli pathogens. Despite what critics love to claim, the major meatpackers would vastly prefer to invest in preventive technology, rather than face the potentially monumental liabilities a full-blown recall and/or food-borne illness outbreak traced to their products is certain to trigger.

History has shown that when the costs of such measures are prohibitive, companies that are unable (or unwilling) to implement them typically sell out or shut down.

But until a fail-safe method of pasteurizing beef is perfected, the industry stance, though unsatisfying to food-safety activists, is correct: Interventions that control O157:H7 are likely to control other trains equally well.

Nobody in business likes facing the costs and compliance issues associated with tough new regulations. In this case, however, industry’ opposition is based on not just a self-serving cost analysis but on the sound science that’s supposed to inform the agencies responsible for protecting the public.

That, and the reality that testing doesn’t deal with the problem, anyway.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.