Ground beef tainted with any of six additional strains of E. coli. besides the already-banned 0157:H7 will be banned from sale in the U.S., according to a new rule issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on September 13. Known as the “Big Six,” the strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) include E. coli O26, O11, O103, O121, O45, and O145.
2010 was the first year in which cases of illness associated with the non-0157 STECs outpaced granddaddy 0157, according to a study released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in June—although 0157 still appeared to be nastier. The non-STECs caused 451 confirmed infections last year, including 69 hospitalizations and one death. E. coli O157 caused 442 infections but far more hospitalizations—184—and two deaths.
“This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time,” said Elisabeth Hagen, MD, USDA undersecretary for food safety, in a statement. “We’re doing this to prevent illness and to save lives.”
The impetus for the decision came from the massive E. coli outbreak in Europe earlier this year, although the particular E. coli strain pinpointed in that outbreak, a rare variant, is not included in the new USDA ban.
The beef industry will be scrambling to deal with the new requirements, said Chris Raines, PhD, assistant professor of meat science and technology at Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Science. “I think one of the issues that we’re going to face is, at least in the short term, the availability of rapid-method tests,” he said. “There are only so many available. There are a lot of unknowns. Are we going to have to revalidate everything we do with 0157 for all the other STECs?”
Some companies say the requirement won’t change much. Costco had announced last year that it would test for the Big Six and, by July, it was also requiring its suppliers to test for enterohemorrhagic E. coli, like the European strain. Beef Products Inc., one of the nation’s largest beef processors, also announced in July that it had begun screening for the Big Six. Both companies have said that testing for additional strains doesn’t require significant structural change for programs already screening for 0157.
But Dr. Raines said that he’s been receiving many calls from the small and very small processors he works with about the rule. “They’re freaking out,” he said. “If they’re doing something custom for a farmer who brings in two cattle to sell at a farmer’s market, all of that has to go through the same process. Will it be a cost increase beyond what they’re already spending on testing, for these folks with much smaller batches? That’s a real concern.”