A March deadline for companies to start tests for six strains of potentially deadly E. coli bacteria has been pushed to June 4 so meatpackers can make sure their methods work, the U.S. Agriculture Department said.
The new deadline will be announced today, the agency said in an e-mail. The USDA is planning to test raw ground beef for six strains of E. coli in addition to one strain, called 0157.H7, that was banned in 1994.
The industry has fought the regulation, saying there’s no proof the expanded testing will prevent illnesses or outbreaks and that it may cost as much as $300 million a year.
“Hopefully this will stop the excuses by industry,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety lawyer who obtained about $30 million in legal settlements against Jack in the Box Inc. following a 1994 outbreak linked to E. coli. “I’m not at all surprised they’re giving the industry a little more time.”
The expanded testing may also become a trade issue, Marler said in an interview. Countries including Canada and Australia have submitted comments on the proposal saying it will increase the expense of exports to the U.S.
Australia said the proposed testing will “add substantial cost,” some of which will be passed onto consumers.
The USDA has said the ban on the six strains will reduce an estimated 110,000 foodborne illnesses a year.
“Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef components even within 90 days will needlessly cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars,” James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the Washington-based American Meat Institute, a trade association representing packers and processors and their suppliers, said in a statement.
The comment period for the rule was extended to Dec. 21 following a request by industry groups such as the American Association of Meat Processors in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and the Meat Import Council of America in Reston, Virginia.