After years of deliberation, USDA has formally declared six additional pathogenic E. coli serogroups (O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145) to be adulterants in non-intact raw beef.

From this point forward, any raw ground beef or tenderized steaks found to contain these pathogens will be prohibited from sale to consumers.

While some within the beef industry reacted warmly to the news, others where not so receptive. In a September 13th, press release, AMI Executive Vice President James H. Hodges criticized the foundation of the new policy:

“This new policy is not supported by science and likely will not benefit public health.  Indeed, in the policy notice USDA acknowledged that ‘we do not know how many illnesses will actually be prevented.  It is not clear whether or not there will be a reduction in the number of illnesses.  It is also challenging to know what the industry cost will be because it is difficult to predict how many establishments will start to test and what the size distribution will be or to what extent industry will take additional measures that will prevent, reduce, or control those hazards, as they do with regard to O157 STEC.”  

Indeed, in many ways, the issue has given way to more questions than answers. Processors, especially small ones, are asking how they will be able to adapt to the likely array of new testing requirements and protocols which may soon be be expected of industry. Moreover, as of today, the time needed to carryout the tests has been causing significant problems for those companies which are already testing.

“It can be a cumbersome process,” Craig Letch, director of quality assurance for Beef Products Inc., told Meatingplace. Letch said that while testing for E. coli O157:H7 can hold up a product shipment for days, there have been times when products being tested for the new strains have been held for even longer, “if in fact you have reactivity.”

Many companies, especially those dealing in fresh products, simply do not have the space or capacity to hold their products for nearly a week before shipment. The added expense of not just testing, but then instituting new programs and holding product for extended periods of time, could significantly and adversely affect both industry and consumers alike.

I have always been the first to commend USDA for demonstrating a real commitment to food safety. In the absence of any real studies supporting this decision, however, the policy appears to have been driven more by sensationalism than by science. 

While it may feel good to declare a bug an adulterant, there is little to show, at this point, that it will have any effect on making our food safer.

I sincerely hope that I am proven wrong.