“Nick of time” testing not good enough, experts say

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should test raw beef carcasses and trimmings for the presence ofEscherichia coli O157:H7, just like it does now for raw ground beef, according to consumer groups who filed a petition with USDA today. The groups, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the American Public Health Association, Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers League, and Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), want testing earlier in the production process—so beef contaminated with the deadly pathogen won’t be ground in with un-contaminated beef.

“Current government testing for E. coli O157:H7 isn’t working as well as it could or should,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for CSPI. “USDA should start testing beef carcasses for that deadly bacterium, and any carcasses found to be contaminated should be cleaned and retested.”

E. coli O157:H7 is a dangerous strain of bacteria that can cause acute illness and even death, particularly in vulnerable persons such as children, the elderly, and those with compromised-immune systems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2000, there were 631 cases of food-borne E. coli O157:H7 infection. Forty percent of those people were hospitalized. A 1992-93 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Washington State, due to undercooked hamburgers consumed at a restaurant chain, resulted in more than 700 illnesses. Of those, 51 persons were hospitalized, 45 developed life-threatening complications, and four died. The median age of all afflicted was 8.

Because E. coli O157:H7 poses a significant public health concern, USDA has established a “zero tolerance” policy for that pathogen. To keep contaminated meat from reaching consumers, USDA annually tests about 7,000 random samples of raw ground beef prepared in federally inspected plants and in retail stores. In the last two years, between 50 and 60 samples tested positive. Recently, USDA Undersecretary Elsa Murano admitted that USDA’s limited testing program for E. coli O157:H7 had “failed miserably” in protecting children and their families.

Government testing of carcasses and trim would encourage slaughterhouses to implement new safety measures, and would result in safer food on America’s tables, say the groups.

“‘Nick of time’ testing of ground beef has prevented some outbreaks and illnesses, but has failed to prevent numerous others,” Smith DeWaal said. “Testing further upstream in the production process could help eliminate the hazard before a contaminated carcass is processed and contaminates other, safer beef.”