It is not easy being a pathogen, unless you are one of those strains of E. coli bacteria that in recent years have found their way into the food supply. Six strains of E. coli have caused about 40,000 illnesses and 30 deaths annually (perhaps even more depending on the source), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite those statistics and various consumer groups that have urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ban the sale of meat that harbor those strains, no change had been made. The meat industry has been particularly vocal about any new regulations.
Yesterday that changed. Perhaps there are examples where industry is not running the show in Washington.
The USDA announced that it has “extended” its zero tolerance policy to those six additional E. coli serogroups (or in laypersons’ terms, strains). For bacteriologists, those strains will be declared “adulterants” in “non-intact raw beef.” For those interested (or fans of the games Bingo or Battleship), those strains are O26, O103, O45, O111, O121, and O145. For those who are not clear what non-intact raw beef (a term PETA and vegans should have started using years ago to encourage people to stop eating meat) exactly is, that includes ground beef, its “components” (not to be confused with the parts that actually create the “non-intact” meat), and tenderized steaks.
For those within the meat industry who are upset this regulation has been passed, the USDA’s FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) will launch a test program to find and zap these dangerous pathogens. The regulation will not take place until March 5, 2012, or the day before the “Super Tuesday” primary. But according to Food Safety News (a site full of rich content related to food safety and allergens, and is also great if you want to diet because you will never want to eat anything after reading a few articles), controls and procedures against O157:H7, the strain of E. coli that has wreaked the most havoc the past two decades, should take care of the latest six strains that the USDA has banned, too.
While the 24/7 news cycle helps make many of us more paranoid than we should be, banning the sale of food that contains harmful bacteria is not necessarily a bad thing. More food companies are trying to score corporate social responsibility points by showing that they care where their ingredients are sourced, but the fact is that our demand for cheap food causes corners to be cut and puts too many consumers at risk. Ground beef is not the only culprit of food-borne illnesses, as several incidents involving contaminated vegetables have shown. The upshot is that consumers need to be more vigilant about learning where their food is from and prepare it correctly. Curiously, while the meat industry fumes and consumer advocate groups are pleased, Costco has supported the ruling as the company has operated the necessary controls for a few months. Regardless, do not get too smug. As Grist author Tom Laskawy points out, the fight against pathogens is far from over.
Photo from Wikicommons.