Editor's Notebook: Testing Our Way to Food Safety

September 30, 2011 03:21 PM

KimWatson grayThis industry has had this discussion before: Can we test our way to food safety? The answer is yes, we can test, but testing may not be the most effective way to protect consumers.

There will still be foodborne illness, since we can’t eliminate contamination after the product reaches stores and consumers. The industry has learned through the years more about these pathogens and added steps in the production process to reduce the potential for contamination. But if the government pushes for more testing and mass product recalls, will that really offer consumers a safer food supply?

Just last month, USDA announced that "six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli will be declared adulterants in non-intact raw beef."

The E. coli serogroups are O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145. Like the strain we’re most familiar with—E. coli O157:H7—these are found in raw ground beef and other products. Under the new rule, any product that tests positive for these strains will be prohibited from entering the food supply.

Starting in March 2012, USDA will require the industry to begin testing beef trim for the six non-0157 Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (nSTEC) strains.

So why the testing? According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, more than 48 million foodborne illnesses occur in the U.S. annually. That’s all foodborne illness. Of that, more than 100,000 human infections of nSTEC have been estimated to be caused by a variety of food sources, not just raw beef. Only three cases were linked to raw ground meat.

"Perspective on this issue is badly needed. Non-O157 shiga toxin–producing E. coli have caused illnesses, but nSTEC in ground beef have been directly linked to only one outbreak involving three
illnesses," according to a statement by James Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. "More than 100,000 human nSTEC infections have been estimated, and we know that these were caused by a variety of food sources. Yet federal resources are being devoted only to beef products that have been confirmed to cause only three illnesses," he said.

While USDA will mandate testing and holding of beef products, which some say will be costly, the beef industry will continue to move forward with finding solutions to fighting these pathogens all along the production chain. For now, though, it appears testing will be USDA’s focus.

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