Non-O157 E. colis – What us worry in the United States? Hell, let’s stop testing produce!

According to French news reports (via Google translator), a 78-year-old Bordeaux woman, unrelated to the group of Bordeaux E. coli O104:H4 cases, died Friday at the University Hospital of Bordeaux after being infected with E. coli O145. At least a dozen other have been sickened in Bordeaux in the past month are part of the group infected with E. coli O104:H4 after attending a carnival on June 8 in Bordeaux (Gironde) where they consumed Egyptian Fenugreek seed sprouts.

A woman aged 65, admitted to the University Hospital of Bordeaux after she was infected with E. coli O104:H4, remained in a “critical” Sunday, while five others remained hospitalized in stable condition, according to the Regional Health Agency (ARS). Five other patients, whose condition is stable, also remained hospitalized in the nephrology unit at the University Hospital for hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), according to ARS. Another person with HUS was released Saturday morning.

spinach Field.jpgOn this side of the pond, we are blissfully awaiting the 4th of July.  Monica Eng, however, of the Chicago Tribune reported today that “U.S. could drop screening for deadly strain of E. coli.” I love her opening paragraphs:

At a time of rising concern over pathogens in produce, Congress is moving to eliminate the only national program that regularly screens U.S. fruits and vegetables for the type of E. coli that recently caused a deadly outbreak in Germany.

The House last month approved a bill that would end funding for the 10-year-old Microbiological Data Program, which tests about 15,000 annual samples of vulnerable produce such as sprouts, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cantaloupe and cilantro for pathogens including salmonella and E. coli.

Over the last two years, its findings have triggered at least 19 produce recalls, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

That is a good thing right? Well, apparently not if you are the produce industry. Eng reports:

The commercial produce industry, which has long expressed concerns about the program, this spring suggested ending its $4.5 million funding. In a memo to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee complained about “unnecessary recalls” and asked if the funds would be “better utilized elsewhere.”

But defenders of the program note that no other agency tests the same breadth of produce for pathogens. For example, the FDA typically spot-checks about 1,000 samples a year, compared with 15,000 for the Microbiological Data Program. In addition, the only E. coli the FDA tests for is the O157:H7 strain, but the MDP also tests for non-O157 strains that include the increasingly mercurial and virulent Shiga toxin-carrying strains of E. coli that contaminated sprouts in Europe, killing more than 40 (sic 50) and sickening (sic over) 4,100. 

Eliminating the program “may serve the interests of agribusiness, but it’s a serious disservice to consumers and public health,” said Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy organization. “Since when does it make sense not to check food for potentially deadly pathogens?”

Yes, let’s eliminate programs that save lives, but put a cramp in the industry’s style? Didn’t they learn a thing from 2006? Read Monica Eng’s FULL STORY.  I talked about the same issue – “Is cutting government always a good idea?” a few weeks ago – but, I am not the Chicago Tribune.

  • John Munsell

    First of all, I must admit what many claim which is that “testing will not produce safe food”. Granted. What WILL produce safe food however is when after a test is positive for one of the deadly E.colis, if meaningful corrective actions are implemented to prevent recurrences, the future incidence of outbreaks will be minimized. Testing is an indicator, therefore is useful.
    Please know that USDA/FSIS does indeed test boneless trimmings and ground beef for E.coli O157:H7. The agency does NOT test intact cuts of boxed beef or carcasses for the bug. Realizing that E.coli in ground beef and trimmings originally emanated from the carcass and intact cuts, why doesn’t FSIS test intact cuts and carcasses? Because the agency smugly proclaims that when E.coli O157:H7 pathogens are found on carcasses and on the exterior of intact cuts, the bacteria is NOT considered an adulterant! Nope, only when the bacteria is found in trimmings and/or ground beef does the agency consider it to be an adulterant. The agency’s justification for such nonsensical policies is that the intact cuts will be cooked intact, such as in steaks and roasts, in which the exterior of the meat cut will be exposed to high temps. Ground beef, by its nature, has had bacteria ubiquitously disseminated throughout the product via the mixing and grinding process.
    Another reason the agency refuses to test carcasses and intact cuts (boxed beef) is that such testing would identify which specific slaughter establishment produced the pathogen-laced meat. Can’t have that, you know. FSIS adroitly avoids nasty confrontations with the big packers.
    If the case you’ve been told that E.coli is rarely if ever found on intact cuts, a speech given by Dr. Richard Raymond in Chicago on Sept 17, 2008 reveals that FSIS is keenly aware that E.coli is found on intact cuts. In his speech, Dr. Raymond stated that the agency had tested 24 pieces of intact boxed beef for E.coli O157:H7. Eight of the tests were positive for E.coli O157:H7, six of which were loin cuts. On two occasions, I’ve requested details of the agency’s test; so far, no response. I’m not holding my breath. I’d like to think that 8 out of 24 was a unique anomaly, a unique outlier, but any guess is mere speculation, since the agency is unwilling to divulge all details. And the agency stated two years ago that it wants to be transparent and open in its dealings. Yup, and I’m Darth Vader’s fairy godmother.
    So, we should not be surprised when any gov agency decides to diminish or discontinue microbial sampling. What we don’t know, won’t hurt us. Well, we might develop HUS and possibly die, but we are “acceptable risks” and expendable to these regulatory bureaucracies which have lost the courage to challenge food industry behemoths.
    John Munsell