On Monday morning, the USDA conducted a private teleconference to inform key meat industry personnel that on Tuesday morning they were going to add 6 E. coli ‘serotypes’ to a list of related pathogens that, until then, had only included one: the notorious O157:H7. The invited execs were sworn to secrecy until Tuesday’s ‘official’ announcement.
Yeah, that promise didn’t last. Somebody squealed and by lunch time, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and MSNBC broke the story. Six STEC’s were about to be banned, a step hoped for by some and feared by others.
First, let’s clarify one important term. Contrary to some scurrilous commentary and poorly worded headlines about ‘banning’ those six E. coli STEC’s, that’s not what’s being suggested by FSIS. No one is demanding those pathogens be rounded up, clapped in tiny little irons and thrown out of downtown Boston.
They will not be banned in Boston, Boise, Burbank or any other American burg. To be precise, here is the language used in Tuesday’s official USDA press release: “As a result of today's action, if the E. coli serogroups O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 are found in raw ground beef or its precursors, those products will be prohibited from entering commerce.”
The proposal declares those six additional strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs), as adulterants in beef, making product contaminated with any of them illegal to sell in commerce. Got beef contaminated with an STEC? Knowingly selling it to the public will, for the first time, become a punishable offense.
If the proposed rule survives the 60 day comment period, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service will begin testing ground beef, beef trim that goes into ground beef and machine-tenderized steaks on March 5, 2012.
The grand daddy of these six pathogens, O157:H7, has been declared an illegal contaminant in beef products since 1994, a policy that was put in place in response to the Jack in the Box outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed four children in the Pacific Northwest.
Many in the meat industry, following the same script they recited in 1994, abhorred the announcement as short on science, while a united list of activist consumer groups stood and applauded. USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, has supported a wider net for almost two decades and probably relished her recent appointment to an influential position in the USDA as a way to move her agenda forward.