- WASHINGTON - A deadly strain
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,
and other cuts, a senior U.S. Agriculture Department official
- 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
or the elderly who eat contaminated ground beef.
- 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
- USDA regulations to protect consumers from E. coli
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
- 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
in testing procedures, and will publish them next month. A
will be held in mid-January, Billy said.
- The new
data was criticized as misleading
- "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.
- 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
- The animals spread E. coli 0157:H7 by defecating and
in shared water troughs.
- Consumer groups say on-farm prevention is
- "We'd like to see development of some kind of
or competitive exclusion product for cattle that will eliminate
of bacteria from the gut of the animals,'' said Caroline
a food safety expert with the Center for Science in the
- The U.S. meat industry is also examining the
- 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
chemical dips, steam vacuuming or other treatments of hides are
kill the bacteria.
- With E. coli more common in raw meat, processors are
likely to embrace irradiation technology that can kill the
- "Several companies are looking very hard at irradiation
right now,'' said Mike Doyle, a University of Georgia researcher.
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
- The USDA's long-delayed regulations for irradiation use
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.