E. coli 0157:H7 isn't a lonely foodborne villain any more.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said today that six uncommon strains of E. coli will be banned from ground beef due to risks of illness. Consumer groups are hailing the move as the biggest advance in meat safety in years.
But meat processors warn it will cost consumers more money, and say the scientific evidence doesn't justify the new expense.
The new rule will require USDA meat inspectors to conduct new E.coli testing that the agency says will make it easier to prevent infected meat from reaching the market, and will make it easier for the agency to pull products from the market if they are found to be tainted.
"It's an effort to protect consumers from the threats as we define them in 2011," USDA food safety chief Elisabeth Hagen tells Shots.
Regulators already require testing for the most common and deadly strain of E. coli — 0157:H7. The new rule requires testing ground beef for six other, less common strains of E. coli thought responsible for thousands of foodborne illnesses. The strains are 026, 0111, 045, 0145, 0121 and 0103, Hagen says.
The strain that recently caused thousands of illnesses in Germany, E. coli 0104:H4, is notably absent from the list, but USDA is considering adding it in the future, Hagen says. The German outbreak was tied to sprouts.
"This is a big win for consumers. In the wake of many recent food recalls caused by E. coli contamination, it is critical that we take the necessary steps to protect the health and well being of all consumers," says Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union.
But the American Meat Institute says the new program is likely to cost millions of dollars and has only been tied to beef in a single outbreak responsible for three illnesses. AMI Executive Vice President James H. Hodges told the New York Times: "It's just not supported by the science."
The government argues that it is. Since 1994, the government's required meat processors to test for E. coli 0157:H7. And the number of illnesses from that strain have gone down, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The six new strains are very virulent, Hagen says.
The new rule is "a really significant incentive for companies to take a number of steps to keep those [tainted] products out of commerce," Hagen says.
But some large meat purveyors like Costco didn't even wait for the government action. They are already requiring suppliers to test for these strains.
The USDA effort has been in the works for at least four years, and has been in regulatory limbo at the president's budget office since at least January.
They made some tweaks, Hagen says, but in the end, the USDA's basic policy to declare these six strains as "adulterants" prevailed. The rule is expected to be posted later today.
The new testing program will take effect in March for beef trim — the meat product used to make ground beef. The six-month delay will give the industry and E. coli test kit makers time to prepare, Hagen says.