Deadly E. coli Strains Go Undetected as Beef Sellers Fight Test
In less than two weeks in late 2007, Kayla Boner went from being a chatty, freckle-faced teenager celebrating her 14th birthday to a hospital patient on a ventilator with failing kidneys and seizures.
Boner’s family said she died from a type of E. coli that isn’t regularly examined in U.S. meat inspections. That strain of the bacteria, and five others that go untested, are at the center of a widening regulatory fight pitting the $74 billion beef industry against public health groups.
Expanded testing “could have saved Kayla’s life,” said Dana Boner, Kayla’s mother and a member of the advocacy group STOP Foodborne Illness, in a telephone interview. “I never, ever thought she could die from E. coli.”
U.S. inspectors now look for only one strain of E. coli, called 0157:H7. Boner and food-safety advocates back a U.S. plan to bar sales of raw ground beef contaminated with six additional strains, including the type that killed Kayla Boner.
At the same time, agriculture interests say there’s no proof that expanded testing will deliver the proven health benefits the proponents say it will and, in the meantime, may cost the industry as much as $300 million a year.
Todd Allen of Wichita, Kansas, who oversees the feeding of 800,000 cattle annually for Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., the world’s largest agriculture company, says it’s not proven that the other strains are as prevalent as 0157, and the technology to test them isn’t fully developed.
‘Issue of Resources’
“We’re going to spend millions testing,” Allen said in a telephone interview. “Are we going to prevent two to three illnesses? Is this where we should be putting our dollars? It’s an issue of resources.”
The 0157 strain of E. coli was banned in 1994 after 700 people became sick and four children died from tainted hamburger sold by San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc. (JACK) restaurants. The six E. coli forms addressed in the new rule belong to a family, called Shiga toxin-producing, that can cause severe illness.
An average American eats the equivalent of almost 120 hamburgers a year made from beef, according to statistics from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Reducing an estimated 110,000 illnesses each year tied to the six added strains justify the costs, said Elisabeth Hagen, the U.S. undersecretary for food safety, in an e-mail.
“Too many Americans are getting sick from the food they eat,” Hagen wrote. “These illnesses are preventable because we know what works.” Illnesses from the 0157 strain have been cut by about half since 1997, in part because of the ban, she said.
On Dec. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture department held a public meeting on the rule, then extended the comment period a month to Dec. 21 following a request by industry groups including the American Association of Meat Processors in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and the Meat Import Council of America in Reston, Virginia.
U.S. estimates published in the Federal Register suggested the rule would cost as much as $10.5 million annually, not including the financial hit from recalls. A single recall with the potential to cause illnesses or death may cost retailers, manufacturers and others as much as $5 million, according to the report.
The American Meat Institute, though, says those estimates are too low, setting the costs of complying with the rule at about $300 million a year.
The ban would apply to raw ground beef, tenderized steaks and trim. Cooking typically kills the bacterium on steaks or larger slabs of beef because the pathogen doesn’t penetrate the surface, said Cargill’s Allen.
Spread by Processing
The processing system helps to spread E. coli throughout ground beef. Trace amounts of fewer than a dozen of the bacteria may cause severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting, as well as death. Risks are higher for the very young, elderly or those with suppressed immune systems.
Ground beef caused an outbreak of one of the six untested E. coli strains that sickened three people in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Processors try to prevent contamination with heat or steam pasteurization, by acid washing carcasses, and using vaccines to or feed additives.
Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety lawyer who obtained about $30 million in legal settlements against Jack in the Box following the 1994 outbreak, called the law critical to preventing illness.
“The meat industry really thinks it’s OK to have E. coli in meat because it’s the responsibility of the consumer to cook it,” Marler said in an interview. He filed a 2009 petition with the USDA asking the agency to ban the six strains.
Some processors and retailers are voluntarily testing for the extra strains, including Beef Products Inc. in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, a producer of lean beef.
Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST), the largest U.S. warehouse club chain Issaquah, Washington-based, in August 2010 started a program to test for the six additional E. coli strains on roughly 700,000 pounds of beef a day and 40,000 pounds an hour of hot dogs.
In early 2012, Costco will require suppliers who provide the company with raw material for their hot dogs and ground beef to provide certificates showing the product has been tested for the six strains and isn’t contaminated, said Craig Wilson, head of food safety at Costco, in an interview.
False positives test results occur more than 20 percent of the time, he said. It may take up to two weeks to confirm results. Meat that gets a positive reading in the first test, which takes less than 24 hours, is diverted to another source, such as returning it to the vendor.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Wilson said. “If you have data to detect a pathogen that could sicken you or your children and we have the technology to prevent that, we should do it.”
Kayla’s mother, Dana Boner, 43, of Monroe, Iowa, agrees. “It shouldn’t be on the shelf if it can kill people,” she said.
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