June 25, 2024

USDA Starts Testing Ground Beef For Big Six E. coli Strains, O157

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has started testing ground beef, bench trim, and other raw ground beef components for Shiga toxin-producing E. coli strains (STEC) that are adulterants. They include the “Big Six” O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145 as well as O157. The testing started on February 1, 2023. This new program was announced in the Federal Register on June 4, 2020.

USDA Starts Testing Ground Beef For Big Six E. coli Strains, O157

Before this new program, the government only tested beef manufacturing trimmings for the Big Six and O157:H7. Otherwise, all raw beef products are tested for E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella bacteria.

FSIS has also started testing for the non-O157 STEC in ground beef samples collected at retail stores and in samples of imported raw beef products. Any positive results will be subject to follow-up testing, and all follow-up samples will be tested for the seven STEC and Salmonella.

The USDA has determined that this proposal is likely to prevent, on average, two recalls per year at an estimated cost of $25.6 million per recall. Since FSIS did not test raw beef products for non-O157 STEC before 2012, is isn’t possible to make proposed comparisons between recalls associated with the Big Six E. coli and O157:H7. Once the agency started testing trimmings for non-O157 STEC, contaminated raw beef products were prevented from entering commerce.

There were 93 recalls of raw beef products adulterated with STEC between August 2012 and December 2020, totaling 45,000,000 pounds. Of those recalls, 20% were caused by non-O157 STEC. Six of those recalls were a result of outbreak investigations. And of those recalls, 15 of them were from raw non-intact and ground beef products, which were not tested for STEC at that time.

FSIS concludes that raw beef verification testing has been effective in helping to protect the public by detecting these pathogens and preventing the products from entering the marketplace.

Still, no testing system is perfect. Last year, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to HelloFresh ground beef sickened at least seven people in six states. Six of those patients were hospitalized.

And as an example of what this new testing program may have prevented, in 2019 an E. coli O103 outbreak linked to ground beef sickened at least 209 people in 10 states. Twenty-nine patients were hospitalized, and two people developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure. No specific ground beef brand was identified in that outbreak.

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