The federal government plans to start requiring meat to be tested for six additional strains of the E. coli bacteria in the hope of improving the safety of the food supply.
The Agriculture Department planned to announce the decision at a briefing Tuesday morning. The new requirement would go into effect March 5.
“The Obama administration is committed to protecting our food supply and preventing illnesses before they happen,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement scheduled to be released at 10 a.m. Tuesday but obtained by someone briefed on the announcement Monday. “Today’s announcement does exactly that by targeting and eliminating contaminated products from the market. Too often, we are caught reacting to a problem instead of preventing it. This new policy will help stop problems before they start.”
USDA Undersecretary Elisabeth Hagen added: “The impact of foodborne illness on a family can be devastating. Consumers deserve a modernized food-safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats.”
The six strains of E. coli “can cause severe illness and even death, and young children and the elderly are at highest risk,” according to the Agriculture Department news release.
The decision was immediately hailed by food-safety advocates.
“I’m really pleased,” said William Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food-safety cases who said he was among those briefed by the USDA on Monday. “This is going to go a long way towards making our food supply safer.”
Officials from the meat industry who were also briefed, however, immediately condemned the decision.
“Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars — costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers,” said James H. Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute. “It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy.”
A USDA spokesman confirmed that the decision had been made and would be announced Tuesday, but would not elaborate on any details.
The USDA for years has required that meat producers only test for a strain of E. coli known as the 0157:H7, which causes an estimated 73,000 illnesses each year. But food-safety advocates have been urging the agency to declare that the six additional strains, which together cause an estimated 130,000 illnesses annually, are also “adulterants.” That step would require companies to test for them and allow meat suspected of being contaminated to be recalled, even before anyone becomes ill.
“That’s very significant,” Marler said. “Right now the only time a non-adulterated product can be recalled is if it makes someone sick.”
Any meat found to be contaminated could only be used in products that have been cooked, which kills the bacteria.
In a statement, the meat institute’s Hodges argued that federal statistics show there is “no public health crisis related to those strains” and that steps companies already are taking to combat E. coli 0157:H7 are equally effective “against all strains.”
“Now, however, USDA will spend millions of dollars testing for these strains instead of using those limited resources toward preventive strategies that are far more effective in ensuring food safety,” Hodges said.