The government is expanding its testing of E. coli in meat, a move that will hasten recalls and help authorities identify more foodborne illnesses.
The meat industry has been required for 17 years to test for the common O157:H7 strain of the pathogen. Now it will test for six more. These other strains of E. coli have increasingly been found in food in recent years, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says other strains cause an estimated 110,000 illnesses annually.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday the Agriculture Department will begin testing for the additional strains of E. coli in beef trimmings _ parts of the cow that end up in ground beef _ in March. That testing may later expand to ground beef itself and other meats.
The meat industry immediately opposed the move, saying it is too expensive to do the tests and there isn't enough benefit.
"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," said James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute.
Food safety lawyer and advocate Bill Marler petitioned USDA to ban the six additional strains two years ago. He said he has seen many clients sickened by the less common strains of E. coli.
"There is no daylight between how a person with E. coli O157:H7 and a person with the other strains gets sick," said Marler. "People get kidney failure, people die, people have long-term complications. The number the bug has isn't really relevant."
E. coli is very common. Hundreds of strains, most harmless, live in the intestines of humans, cows and numerous other animals. But some produce toxins that can cause diarrhea, sometimes severe enough to kill.
The E. coli O157:H7 strain was classified by USDA in 1994 as an "adulterant" _ meaning more testing and swifter recalls if it is found _ after an outbreak of that strain the year before at Jack in the Box fast-food restaurants killed four children. Since then, illnesses from that strain have decreased while the other strains have increasingly been found in food, including in lettuce and ground beef last year.
The USDA oversees meat safety, while the FDA oversees the safety of most other foods. The FDA does not distinguish between different forms of E. coli when investigating outbreaks.
Advocates have been pushing the Obama administration for years to classify the additional six strains as adulterants, and the classification was delayed for several months as the meat industry fought the proposal and the White House reviewed it. Meanwhile, some retailers and beef producers have started their own testing for the additional strains.
The government came under renewed pressure after a European outbreak of a new non-O157 strain of E. coli that killed dozens. However, that new strain is not one of the six that the government will test for in the United States.
One reason it has taken years to test for the pathogens is the time it has taken to develop the tests. Now that they are developed and meat will be tested, more illnesses are expected to be found as the testing samples are linked to outbreaks.
At least one consumer advocacy group said it wants the department to go even further and declare antibiotic-resistant salmonella an adulterant as well. Because salmonella is so prevalent in poultry and is killed if consumers handle and cook it properly, the government has not declared it to be illegal in meat as the E. coli strains now are.
Still, salmonella can be deadly. It causes a large number of food poisoning cases and federal health officials have said they've made almost no progress against it. Meat giant Cargill recalled more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey this year after it was linked to 111 salmonella illnesses in 31 states and one death. That strain was resistant to some antibiotics.
"Consumers deserve the same level of protection from antibiotic-resistant salmonella as well," said Sarah Klein of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has petitioned USDA to declare those pathogens illegal.