USDA and the E. coli battle

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today that it is taking new steps to fight E. coli and protect the safety of the American food supply. Six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli will be declared adulterants in non-intact raw beef. Raw ground beef, its components, and tenderized steaks found to contain these bacteria will be prohibited from sale to consumers. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will launch a testing program to detect these dangerous pathogens and prevent them from reaching consumers.

As a result of today's action, if the E. coli serogroups O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 are found in raw ground beef or its precursors, those products will be prohibited from entering commerce. Like E. coli O157:H7, these serogroups can cause severe illness and even death, and young children and the elderly are at highest risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies these particular serogroups of non-O157:H7 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, or non-O157 STEC, as those responsible for the greatest numbers of non-O157 STEC illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States.

"The Obama Administration is committed to protecting our food supply and preventing illnesses before they happen," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Today's announcement does exactly that by targeting and eliminating contaminated products from the market. Too often, we are caught reacting to a problem instead of preventing it. This new policy will help stop problems before they start."

"The impact of foodborne illness on a family can be devastating," said Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen. "Consumers deserve a modernized food safety system that focuses on prevention and protects them and their families from emerging threats. As non-O157 STEC bacteria have emerged and evolved, so too must our regulatory policies to protect the public health and ensure the safety of our food supply."

Today's action is an important part of the government-wide commitment to dealing with emerging microbial threats. Through the President's Food Safety Working Group, USDA and its federal partners have been working on a new, public health-focused approach to food safety based on the principles of prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response.

"The Food and Drug Administration applauds USDA for taking this action to better protect consumers," said FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Mike Taylor. "We are committed to working with FSIS to prevent disease causing non-O157 STEC bacteria in all foods. Through implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, FDA will continue to place prevention at the core of the efforts to improve the food safety system."

FSIS will begin testing for these six serogroups of STEC and enforcing the new policy on March 5, 2012. The Agency invites interested persons to submit comments within 60 days of publication in the Federal Register. FSIS would like to hear from the public on a number of issues highlighted in the Federal Register notice, including the implementation of the policy and additional outreach the Agency will conduct, such as public meetings.

Over the past two years, FSIS has announced several new measures to safeguard the food supply, prevent foodborne illness, and improve consumers' knowledge about the food they eat. These initiatives support the three core principles developed by the President's Food Safety Working Group (FSWG). Some of these actions include:

  • Performance standards for poultry establishments for continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens. USDA expects the new standards to prevent as many as 25,000 foodborne illnesses annually. This includes a tougher performance standard for Salmonella and the first ever performance standard for Campylobacter.
  • Test and hold policy that will significantly reduce consumer exposure to unsafe meat products, because products cannot be released into commerce until Agency test results for dangerous contaminants are known.
  • Labeling proposals that provide better information to consumers about their food by requiring nutrition labels on single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products and by simplifying labeling language for raw meat and poultry products with added solutions that may not be apparent to the consumer.
  • Public Health Information System, a modernized, comprehensive database about public health trends and food safety violations at the nearly 6,100 plants FSIS regulates.

As part of its multi-faceted approach to prevent foodborne illness, USDA also launched Food Safe Families, a consumer education campaign with the Ad Council, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is the first joint public service campaign to empower families to further reduce their risk of foodborne illness at home by checking their key food safety steps: clean, separate, cook, and chill. For more information, go to http://www.foodsafety.gov.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender. To file a complaint of discrimination, write: USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (800) 795-3272 (voice), or (202) 720-6382 (TDD).


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