In an article dated September 13, 2011, the New York Times reported that the U.S. federal government will expand its current ban on E. Colin in food to include 6 lesser known strains of E. Coli that have increasingly been identified as the cause in cases of food-born illness. The most deadly form of E. Coli, know as E. Coli 0157:H7, has been banned from ground beef since 1994 when an outbreak killed 4 children and sickened hundreds of people (remember the notorious Jack in the Box E. Coli outbreak?) . Enforcement of this new ban will begin in March 2012.
In recent years, six relativity new and lesser known strains of E. Coli have begun to show up in cases of food born illness more and more often. As cases of illness due to these 6 forms of E. Coli (referred to by regulators as “the Big Six”) have risen, calls from scientists and consumer advocates for a ban on them in ground meat products have also become more insistent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that strains of E. Coli other than E. Coli 0157:H7 (a group that includes “The Big Six:” identified in this ban) cause 113,000 illnesses each year. Dr. Elisabeth Haggen of the U.S. Agriculture Department said of the new regulations “We are doing this to prevent illness and to save lives.”
Predictably, the meat processing industry has attacked the ban. The American Meat Institute issue a statement saying that the new regulations on ground meat will cost tens of million of in federal and industry dollars while not yielding any significant improvement in safety. They also noted that these costs will likely be passed on to consumers.
It is interesting to note that, while this new regulation adds 6 strains of E. Coli to the list of strains banned in ground meat, not all forms of E. Coli are banned. For example, the strain of E. Coli that caused dozens of deaths among people who ate contaminated sprouts in Europe earlier this summer is not currently banned in the U.S. because no cases involving it have yet been detected here.
Note that meat producers are not being asked to dispose of meat contaminated with E. Coli, but simply not sell it uncooked. Currently, ground meat that is found to contain E. Coli 0157:H7 is diverted from raw sale as raw product to use in pre-cooked products like soup or chili.
Man, this is a scary discussion. Kind makes you want to either 1) grind your own burger meat or 2) eat your burgers well done 3) stop eating burgers. I am glad to see these new regulations in place even if there is still a long way to go toward insuring the safety of our food supply. Slow progress is still progress.