WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 - A deadly strain of E. coli
bacteria is far more common in U.S. cattle than previously thought, and
may be found in half the animals that are made into ground beef, steaks
and other cuts, a senior U.S. Agriculture Department official said
The surprisingly high rate of E. coli 0157:H7, detected
by more sensitive testing techniques used since September, has prompted
the USDA to take the unusual step of re-evaluating how it regulates the
The bacteria can cause kidney failure and death among
children or the elderly who eat contaminated ground beef.
Hides in Digestive System
But among cattle, E. coli 0157:H7 lives harmlessly in the digestive
tract. The bug migrates when animals are slaughtered and skinned, moving
from internal organs and hides to flesh.
Tom Billy, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and
Inspection Service, said in an interview that agency scientists were
still analyzing data but decided to alert the industry about the
unexpected preliminary results. USDA regulations to protect consumers
from E. coli 0157:H7 contamination were based on 1994 data showing the
bug occurred in one of every 2,000 or so carcasses at the slaughter
plant. "The prevalence could be much more common and as high as one in
every two carcasses," Billy said. "If that's true, it changes
significantly the options available to us to achieve the zero
No Tolerance for Bugs
USDA regulations allow "zero tolerance" of E. coli 0157:H7. If tests
detect the pathogen in raw ground beef, that batch is considered
adulterated and is usually destroyed. Companies can process the meat at
high temperatures to kill the bacteria, then use it in cooked foods such
as canned chili.
"We are not changing the zero tolerance policy. That
will remain in effect. That will not change," he said. The USDA is
drafting some options that may include changes in testing procedures,
and will publish them next month. A public hearing will be held in
mid-January, Billy said.
The new data was criticized as misleading by cattlemen.
"There is no evidence the prevalence of this organism has changed at all
since we began studying it in the early 1990s," said Gary Weber of the
National Cattlemens Beef Association.
Infection Rates Likely Lower
The USDA data reflects only whether cattle have been exposed to the bug
at some point in their lives -- not that they are carrying it at the
time of slaughter, Weber said. Actual infection rates are less than
one-half percent of cows, based on testing by meat grinders and
processors, he said. The new data also raises the issue of whether
farmers and ranchers need to do more to prevent E. coli in their herds.
The bacteria is found more often on the hides of feedlot cattle, the
USDA said. Feedlot cattle are typically fattened in a confined area just
before going to slaughter. The animals spread E. coli 0157:H7 by
defecating and drooling in shared water troughs. Consumer groups say
on-farm prevention is essential.
Perhaps a Possible Vaccine?
"We'd like to see development of some kind of vaccine or competitive
exclusion product for cattle that will eliminate this strain of bacteria
from the gut of the animals," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food safety
expert with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The U.S. meat industry is also examining the issue. The
American Meat Institute, an industry trade group, has funded research to
measure how much E.coli is left on an animal hide after slaughter. The
researchers are also trying to determine whether various chemical dips,
steam vacuuming or other treatments of hides are best to kill the
bacteria. With E. coli more common in raw meat, processors are likely to
embrace irradiation technology that can kill the bacteria.
Price and Waste
"Several companies are looking very hard at irradiation right now," said
Mike Doyle, a University of Georgia researcher. "The economics are an
important factor. How much are we willing to pay for ground beef, and
how much are we willing to throw out as adulterated?"
The USDA's long-delayed regulations for irradiation use
in plants will be issued by the end of December, Billy said. The USDA
monitors E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef by taking 8,000 samples annually
at slaughter plants and grocery stores.
A recent outbreak of the bug at a New York fair killed
an elderly man and a three-year-old girl, and sickened more than 600
others. Investigators have theorized a water well may have been
contaminated by nearby dairy cow barns.
Nationwide, an estimated 52 Americans die annually from
E. coli 0157:H7 and 60,000 others fall ill from the bug.
Go on to Texas
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