Friday, December 16, 2011


Food safety agencies all over the world have an unenviable task to perform and whether they do this honestly or otherwise, they will be damned eventually whenever a food poisoning episode occurs! Look at the recent confrontation between the FDA of the US and the meat industry conglomerates regarding compulsory screening of raw meat for non-0157 strain of E.coli  before sending the consignments to the market. According to reliable data available, these variants of E.coli affect a few thousand people though the damage inflicted is neither widespread nor very alarming but safety agencies cannot ignore even a small episode of contamination, lest it becomes an epidemic in future. The arguments by the industry, that such rigid control is too premature, does not justify for huge investments for monitoring and eliminating these pathogens and it is unfair to insist on such tests for imported meats from countries like Australia and New Zealand where non-0157 is not a public health concern, may have some substance. Here is a critique on this issue that highlights the on-going tussle.

"A who's who of meat industry groups petitioned USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack last week to demand a delay in implementing the Food Safety and Inspection Service's proposed policy regarding mandatory testing for non-O157 E. coli strains in raw meat products. The new rule, set to begin in March, declared six additional serotypes of pathogenic E. coli (O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145) as adulterants in raw meat products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those six non-O157 strains annually cause more than 36,000 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in the United States. The coalition, which included key trade groups from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Uruguay, stated concerns about the impact of the new rule on export-import trade and the cost to industry of implementing what is considered to be a negligible public health benefit. "Given that STEC (shiga toxin producing E. coli) other than E. coli O157:H7 are not considered a major public health concern within countries such as Australia, New Zealand, among others, and that the majority of non-E. coli O157 STEC infections are attributed to non-beef food sources, coupled with the infirmities of the Draft Risk Profile, legitimate WTO questions exist," the groups contended in their letter. "In very plain terms, implementing this policy is premature," the American Meat Institute noted in a statement, citing the lack of data confirming that the new strains are a serious hazard. "It is not clear whether on net there will be a reduction in the number of illnesses," the industry's letter stated. AMI Executive Vice President James H. Hodges noted that, "In-plant food safety technologies do not discriminate; they destroy all strains of E. coli. USDA is proposing a solution in search of a problem." The Canadian Meat Council, which represents beef exporters to the United States, complained as well. "In a country where we don't see the six STECs as critically as they are viewed in the U.S., we'd like to exempt Canadian products shipped to the U.S. from these rules," said Brian Reed, a CMC director and past president and an executive at XL Foods in Markham, Ontario".

A relevant question to be addressed by the safety agencies is whether a negative result on 0157 by routine tests done by the industry does not imply that others are also not present in these products? Whether measures taken to eliminate 0157 should also take care of the non-0157 versions in the products is another issue to be sorted out. If the US is so much convinced about the seriousness of contamination by non-0157 E.coli it is time all meat products are allowed to be treated with Gamma Radiation process to ensure absolute freedom from all pathogens. If some processors misuse the irradiation process for fraudulent and unethical marketing practices there are other mechanisms to bring them to books.


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