Newly sworn-in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen, MD, should make an expanded assault on Escherichia coli, one of her top priorities for her first few months in the position, said an attorney who has litigated foodborne illnesses since 1993.
Bill Marler, who writes the MarlerBlog on food poisoning outbreaks and litigation, noted that food safety enforcement has long focused on the common 0157:H7 strain of E. coli at the expense of other strains that also pose a hazard to public health. “My hope is that Dr. Hagen will turn her attention to the extremely important and long-neglected business of getting the six non-O157:H7 strains of pathogenic E. coli named as adulterants,” he said. “The fact that these highly dangerous bugs are not monitored or regulated in our food supply is completely out of sync with the mission of FSIS.”
The issue has been on the USDA’s agenda for several years, but so far it is not illegal to sell meat tainted with the six lesser-known strains of E. coli. Currently, meat plants are only required to test for the most common strain of E. coli, O157:H7. But in the wake of an outbreak of E. coli 026 this summer traced back to a Cargill plant in Pennsylvania, Dr. Hagen has signaled an interest in broader oversight of E. coli. “In order to best prevent illnesses and deaths from dangerous E. coli in beef, our policies need to evolve to address a broader range of these pathogens,” Dr. Hagen said in a statement.
There are no rapid detection methods for the six rarer strains of E. coli at this time. According to the USDA, such tests should be developed by the end of 2011. In an interview with The New York Times in May, David Goldman, MD, assistant administrator for the USDA’s Office of Public Health Science, said that completing the rapid response tests was not an absolute prerequisite for banning the additional pathogens. “I don’t want to give the impression that we’re going to wait months and months for these tests and months and months to see what’s in the beef supply,” he said. “In terms of policy options, it’s not like we have to do one and then the other.”