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. 

POINT: Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, told the New York Times, "This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time. We're doing this to prevent illness and to save lives."

COUNTERPOINT I: James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute said on Monday, "USDA's announcement today 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."

Hodges released a follow up statement on Tuesday that said, “It is also concerning that this major announcement is not coupled with a public health risk assessment, which is ordinarily the basis for good public health policy. Instead, USDA has drafted a paper detailing their ‘reasoning’ because they admit they don’t have the data they need to do a proper risk assessment.

COUNTERPOINT II: Todd Allen, vice chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association beef safety committee and past president of the Kansas Livestock Association, used a prepared statement to agree with Hodges. “All policy and regulatory decisions must be based on the latest knowledge, sound science and proper risk assessment. There is still research that needs to be conducted to fully understand and close knowledge gaps related to non-O157 STECs,” he said.

Allen added a conciliatory note when he said, “It is important for USDA to listen to the concerns of cattlemen and answer our questions as it moves forward with this policy document and all regulatory measures that affect our industry. NCBA will analyze the document and provide science-based comments to USDA.”

Richard A. Raymond, MD, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety in 2005-2008, put the issue in context when he wrote this for Food Safety News the day the proposal was leaked: “. . . the Centers for Disease Control adjusted their estimates for non-O157 STEC foodborne illnesses in the January, 2011, edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases. That number now stands at 113,000 cases per year, making these pathogens the sixth leading cause of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. and double that credited to E coli O157:H7.”

Jose Calabro, responding with one of the more sensible comments in a barrage of poorly-informed and badly worded knee-jerk reactions to coverage in the Wall Street Journal, wrote, “Why would the meat industry protest a ban on the presence of bacterial strains that cause illness in people, and possibly very serious consequences at that in those who are older and/or immune-compromised? What would they actually like to do instead? Be allowed to freely deliver such products? This is ridiculous.”

Dr. Barbara Kowalcyk, CEO of the Center for Food Borne Illness Research and Prevention, who became a tireless advocate after her son lost his life from eating an E.coli O157:H7-contaminated hamburger, said. "This is a huge step. We think this is going to have a significant impact on public health -- fewer recalls, fewer illnesses, fewer deaths”. 

“The average cost of a recall is $4-5 million plus the loss in consumer confidence," she said. "Preventing just two recalls could make up for the (approximate $10 million) cost. And that's not even taking into account the human costs."

Nancy Donley, co-founder of STOP Foodborne Illness, whose son died in the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, e-mailed Food Safety News with this statement: "All of us at STOP Foodborne Illness are absolutely thrilled to have the big six declared adulterants. It's something that we have been advocating for years now. We're pleased to see the USDA act progressively in putting forward an initiative that should greatly enhance public health and safety rather than waiting for another major foodborne illness outbreak to spur them to action."

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), praised the step, issuing a statement that said, "It is a critical step forward in bettering our food safety system. When a similar action was taken on E. coli O157:H7, its prevalence decreased by nearly fourfold, and I hope to see a similar result with these six strains. I applaud this new rule, and hope to continue enhancing the USDA's ability to protect American consumers from unsafe food."

Dr. Jim Marsden, Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Meat Science at Kansas State University and North American Meat Processors Association’s Senior Science Advisor, stated in a presentation at NAMP’s E. coli conference last month, "Regardless of potential FSIS actions on nSTECs, it is in the interest of the beef industry to address the issue of nSTECs before it explodes into a major public health crisis,"

Asked by Food Safety News to ‘revise and extend’ his remarks after Monday’s announcement, Dr. Marsden said, "I don't believe it will result in a crisis. The interventions already in place to control E. coli O157:H7 are apparently effective at controlling STECs as well. There is no public health crisis, so I don't think we will see recalls resulting from outbreaks. As long as processors hold product and don't let it into commerce until a negative test result is reported, the new policy shouldn't result in a major disruption across the beef industry."

Bo Reagan, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association senior vice president of Research, Education and Innovation and chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo) issued this statement Tuesday morning after the ‘official’ FSIS statement.  “As we all work to close knowledge gaps related to emerging pathogens, we today find ourselves dealing with emerging regulation with USDA’s announcement. Because of the industry’s knowledge and experience in addressing E. coli O157, we have a great foundation of science to move forward with this emerging pathogen.”

“As an industry-recognized leader, the BIFSCo membership will rapidly move forward gathering together individuals from all sectors of the industry to determine concerns and questions we have with the proposal as well as to develop plans to implement the new testing requirements. We will continue working with scientists and government officials to ensure all regulations are based on the latest knowledge, sound science and risk assessment so we can all play an important role in the safety of food.”