May 24, 2022

USDA Extends the Start for “Big Six” E. coli Sampling at U.S. Beef Plants

A major meat safety initiative by the USDA under the Obama Administration will be delayed three months to give the industry extra time to validate their test methods for detecting six additional types of toxic E. coli.

The extension by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will now place the start of the so-called Big Six sampling program on June 4. It had been slated to begin March 5. FSIS inspectors have been sampling beef for E. coli O157:H7 since 1994, one year after a deadly outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses in the Northwest were associated with consumption of undercooked ground beef at a fast-food hamburger chain.

The expanded sampling program approved last year will include additional STEC serogroups (O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145). Initial sampling for these serogroups will begin with raw beef manufacturing trimmings and other raw ground beef product components produced domestically and imported.

STEC stands for Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.. In humans, the toxin attacks red blood cells and fragments them, leading to kidney failure, stroke, nerve damage, heart attack, severe anemia and other severe health complications. Children under the age of 5, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk for severe illness, including life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

There are many more than six E. coli types that emit Shiga-type toxins, but the so-called Big Six were showing up in outbreaks at a frequency that singled them out for more scrutiny. Under the change adopted last year, they too are now labeled as adulterants in ground beef and other non-intact beef products – making them illegal to sell.

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