Six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli have been declared adulterants in non-intact raw beef by the USDA. The zero tolerance policy for E. coli O157:H7 is being extended to these pathogens. If these bacteria are found in raw ground beef, its components, or tenderized steaks, those items will be prohibited for sale to consumers. A testing program for these pathogens is being launched by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says that it is estimated that annually there are more than 112,000 foodborne illnesses occur as a result of E. coli. USDA estimates that of those 112,000 cases 36,700 would be attributable to beef. During the past decade there has been a 284% increase of confirmed illnesses from non-O157, while a 27% decrease has been seen in the same period of time from O157.
"So starting in March of 2012 USDA will launch a testing program, initially in beef manufactured trim to detect these pathogens and prevent them from being sold for consumption," Vilsack said. "One of the reasons we are doing this is because these pathogens can survive ordinary cooking."
The six new E. coli serogroups that will be tested for are O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145. Vilsack says they hope to streamline testing methods by using samples that are already being used and tested for other pathogens.
The policy that is being established is in line with the responsibilities that USDA has under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and is based on the process used when O157 was declared an adulterant following the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak where four children died.
"This is another opportunity for us to build on the work of the Food Safety Working Group," Vilsack said. "To make sure we are doing appropriate and necessary steps to protect the consuming public and to further enhance food safety in this country."