By: Jim Hodges

Starting Monday, USDA will implement a new testing program for six strains of Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) in addition to the E. Coli O157:H7 it already tests for.  AMI has done extensive work on this issue since the proposed rule was published last fall including providing comments documenting our concerns with the new rule.

The industry is currently controlling the six additional STEC through existing food safety intervention strategies. That’s why AMI has registered the industry’s strong reservations about this new testing program’s ability to enhance food safety.  We know that our view on this policy isn’t a popular one.   The fact that we’ve continued to advocate our view should signal just how strongly we believe the policy will have little positive impact on food safety.  If we were simply interested in winning a PR battle, we would have praised this policy long ago. But we remain committed to the facts, which tell us this new policy simply won’t achieve the food progress that has been promised.

Our view is detailed most recently in an opinion piece that was posted on Food Safety News. In that piece it was notable that even USDA’s own draft risk profile peer reviewers were skeptical of the impact of the new policy.

The reviewer states there is no “Evidence that declaring six serotypes of non-O157 STEC adulterants would have any public health benefit. As it is, the evidence suggests that contamination with these serotypes is prevented or eliminated by exactly the same interventions that are currently in place to prevent or eliminate O157 STEC contamination. In the absence of additional interventions that would specifically affect non-O157 STEC, declaring them adulterants is not likely to have any public health benefit.”

Earlier this week, Nature carried a story previewing the policy and we were gratified to stand in the company of one of the best food microbiologists in the country, the University of Georgia’s Mike Doyle, Ph.D., who said, “I think it’s a fundamentally flawed policy, and it’s not based on the best science.”

Still, it is USDA’s policy and we are doing our best to prepare for its implementation.  Currently,  many of our members are doing testing to document that the intervention systems they use to destroy E. coli O157 also destroy the six additional strains.

With or without the new policy, U.S. beef is extremely safe.  We are proud of our food safety progress and will cooperate with the government to continue to meet emerging food safety challenges.  We will now begin the process of compliance, and time and data will provide the final judgment on the policy’s merits.

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