July 20, 2019

Five Reasons Consumers Should Care About Wider E. coli Testing in Beef

The USDA has formally declared six additional pathogenic E. coli serogroups to be adulterants in ground beef. In March, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is scheduled to begin testing at meatpacking plants for the so-called Big Six: E. coli O26, E. coli O45, E. coli O103, E. coli O111, E. coli O121 and E. coli O145. They join E. coli O157:H7 as a new set of dangerous micro-organisms banned from ground beef and other non-intact beef products, such as needle- or blade-tenderized steak.

Here are five reasons this is good news for the health of your family:

1) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that non-O157 strains of toxic E. coli are connected with about 110,000 human food poisoning illnesses annually — almost double the number of illnesses connected with food-borne E. coli O157 strains. These types of E. coli emit shiga-like toxins that attack a person’s red blood cells, causing kidney failure, stroke, seizures, anemia, heart attacks and damage to the central nervous system.

2) The FSIS move to expand testing indicates the agency has seen evidence that these E coli strains can survive in ground beef during ordinary cooking, that they can cause hemorrhagic colitis, and that all but O45 can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication of infection that is most prevalent in children under the age of five.

3) The March implementation will be well-timed, because the highest prevalences of E coli–related illnesses occur during the summer months. About half of toxic E. coli infections occur during summer months.

4) While not a lot of the outbreaks involving the Big Six have been directly attributed to meat products, the origins for these strains of E coli are animal-based and cattle are the biggest reservoir. The expanded testing is a tightening of vigilance on these strains.

5) The President’s Food Safety Working Group, which is chaired by the secretaries of agriculture and health and human services, is focused on prevention as a principle for building a modern food safety system. The new policy on expanded testing to start detecting the Big Six is one of the major outgrowths of that proactive strategy to reduce illnesses and address threats.

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