USDA steps up testing for more E.coli strains in food products.
September 13th, 2011
02:51 PM ET

USDA steps up testing for more E.coli strains in food products.

In an effort to provide the American public with safer meat products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it is taking new steps to fight six additional strains or serogroups of E.coli. The bacteria, which can grow in different types of foods, such as ground beef and tenderized steaks, can cause serious illnesses and in some cases, death in those who eat it. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service will launch the testing program next March, to detect these dangerous pathogens and prevent them from reaching consumers.

“This is another opportunity to build on the work safety group (President's Food Safety Working Group) to make sure we are protecting the public from food borne illnesses,.” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Right now, the USDA allows some meat products to be sold, that have small traces of certain strains of E. coli. Once the new regulations are in place, if raw ground beef or other products contain the E. coli serogroups of O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 they will not be sold. Like E.coli O157:H7, which is the most recognized and deadliest strain of the bacteria and an E.coli strain that is not allowed on the market, these serogroups can cause severe illnesses, especially in the elderly and young children.

"The impact of food borne illness on a family can be devastating," said Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen. "Consumers deserve a modernized food safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats. As non-O157 STEC bacteria have emerged and evolved, so too must our regulatory policies to protect the public health and ensure the safety of our food supply."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, DC, backed the USDA’s move today to test for these other E. coli strains According to data collected by CSPI these other forms of E. coli have been linked to 10 outbreaks and nearly 700 illnesses in the U.S. since 1998.

In a statement released by the CSPI, today, the organization stated, “The new testing program will help prevent future outbreaks, as products testing positive for these strains will be diverted to further processing and not placed into commerce.”

CSPI officials also noted they are now asking the USDA to turn its attention to Salmonella; another deadly form of bacteria, traditionally found in raw meat and poultry. Although the USDA does test for high amounts of salmonella, the CSPI petitioned the agency to declare four of salmonella pathogens as unacceptable under the law, hoping to trigger the same testing protocols now being undertaken for deadly E. coli strains.

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