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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

GAO suggests USDA could be more aggressive on pre-slaughter interventions to reduce E. coli in cattle

6a00d8341c630a53ef00e5526b38938834-800wi.jpgThe GAO – U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, released a report (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-257) this week that calls into question what the USDA/FSIS is doing (not doing) presently to reduce the risk of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) in cattle.

The report suggested a number of pre-slaughter interventions that have not been widely accepted by industry:

  • bacteriophages (viruses that infect and kill bacteria),
  • probiotics (live bacteria that can benefit the digestive system), and
  • sodium chlorate (chemical that kills the STEC O157:H7 strain).

The GAO did note, however, that vaccines (biological preparations that alter the immune system) to lessen E. coli O157:H7 in cattle, had been submitted by manufacturers, but the USDA has been slow to provide guidance and approval.

In addition, the GAO found that some foreign governments have practices that could be relevant to U.S. efforts to reduce STEC in cattle such as the following:

  • The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union require certain measures, such as verification of cleanliness by an inspector, to ensure that the cattle going to slaughter are clean. In contrast, USDA assesses the health of cattle but does not inspect for cleanliness.
  • At least 12 European Union member countries collected and reported data on STEC in live cattle in 2009. USDA has conducted STEC testing in live cattle, but has not tested since 1999.
  • When a person becomes ill from E. coli in Sweden, government officials try to determine the specific farm that sold the contaminated cattle so that other carcasses from the farm can be tested for STEC. USDA does not trace the STEC source back to the farm.

All the European measures should be adopted by USDA/FSIS/CDC now. In addition the use of pre-slaughter vaccines should go into full-scale trials. Not only could vaccines lessen E. coli O157:H7 in cattle headed for the slaughterhouse, but also lessen E. coli O157:H7 in cattle near produce growing areas and even those that attend state and county fairs or petting zoos.

  • Paul F Schwarz

    I am sure the near mention of Europe will end any talk of reforms. Lobbyists for the cattle industry will make sure of it! And we think that we have a government ‘for the people’!
    Section 51 Row 1 Grave 3

  • Carl Custer

    Yea!
    Vilsack mentioned workshops at the IAFP meeting last August.
    APHIS, ARS, & FSIS had a meeting last November on preharvest controls.
    Maybe this is the additional shove they need
    FWIW your link to the report wasn’t working for me.
    But, I found it here:
    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-257

  • doc raymond

    I think it is interesting that the GAO would cite EU programs when we import little or no beef from them. More appropriate, I think, would be to take a look at Australia and New Zealand from whom we import a great deal of beef products and who seem to have a more realistic look at food production than the technophobic EU. Australia does inspect cattle on the hoof for cleanliness, and I have blogged many times that we need to do that in the US. Might not work in Montana in January, but Texas and Florida should have no problem year ’round. As for testing cattle for E coli, the GAO evidently does not believe the testing done by the USDA and the Meat Animal Research Center or the thousands of cattle tested by industryand/or universities as part of the vaccine assessments are valid? Sort of raises some concerns in my mind about the validity of many of their findings. We have our USDA numbers from as recently as 2011. There are many steps that can be taken pre-slaughter, but the questions abound. Who is going to pay for them, will consumers be OK with Probiotics, etc, and who would police the practices. FSIS does not have on farm authority.

  • Farmer With A Dell

    Good luck reaching a point where you can trace nastiness back to the little ‘ol source farm. That requires traceability programs on the order of NAIS. And you remember how RCALF joined forces with anti-farm acitivist groups to prevent any of their members being identified as a source. Nope, won’t be any such traceback of significance. You will have to be content regulating a few conscientious large producers…and puzzling over where the heck this nasty stuff really is creeping in from.

  • thanks Carl – I added link directly into text.

  • Dan Cohen, Maccabee Seed Co. Davis CA

    Both the EU and individual European nations also have increased restrictions on the non-clinical use of antibiotics in livestock.

    Interventions that reduce, limit, or eliminate human pathogen introductions, virulence, and transmission within the agricultural environment are all useful. Feedlot studies also show that introduction and transmission of STECS is an issue for confined cattle, and persists over time.

    “Pre-slaughter” can be extended to cover a much longer period of time, with layered interventions; each one of which may not be completely successful but in aggregate can provide statistically significant reduction in STEC.

  • J Butterweck

    Food irradiation is the most realistic to be used after the product is harvested.
    Not realistic to use the suggested technology in pre-slaughter.
    As usual, they guy in the office away from the problems, has the best solution?
    If GAO wants to be productive, the can help get rid of the food irradiation label requirement. The labeling has NO scientific basis.

  • Bill Anderson

    I find it ironic that you suggest adopting European standards for control of STEC, but on questions such as GMO’s or raw milk you seem to advocate a thoroughly American approach.
    In Europe, you can buy raw milk out of vending machines, and GMO’s are banned. In America, its the other way around.

  • Dr Butterweck

    I posted a comment . What happened?

  • Minkpuppy

    I have very little faith that USDA will actually follow GAO advice given that they have generally ignored GAO recommendations in the past.

    That said, inspecting live cattle for mud and manure can easily be made part of the ante-mortem inspection and the cattle segregated based on how dirty they are. Yes, that means more work for the slaughter plant but it also means they can run the cattle from cleanest first in the day to the dirtiest at the end of the day, minimizing the contamination off the hides. Oh wait, that makes sense. I forgot I’m dealing with slaughter plants here.

    Doc Raymond: I’ve got it stuck in my head that the studies on washing the cattle before slaughter showed it didn’t help much but right now it’s far too late and I’m far too tired to do an intense google search(it’s nearly 2am here and I’m at the end of a very long shift-ugh). Do you recall anything about studies on this?

    Once the cattle are cleaned up pre-harvest, the slaughter and processing interventions, including irradiation, should be more effective. We should use all the available techniques to reduce microbial loads all along the process rather than relying on one silver bullet at the end.

    Traceback to at least the feedlot shouldn’t be a problem either but I never underestimate the ability of the industry to quash that sort of thing. The plants already gather information about which feedlots are providing cattle for the day and generally slaughter all of the cattle together in one lot. Tracing back beyond the feedlot is a can of worms. Good luck getting the feedlots to cooperate with providing information about the calves they purchase for finishing.