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USDA poised to start testing beef for non-O157 E coli

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), poised to start testing beef trim for six non-O157 strains of pathogenic Escherichia coli next week, today released documents that spell out some expectations for the program and make clear that much remains to be learned about the risk.

In a notice to be published in the Federal Register, USDA officials responded to industry concerns about the testing program and said they expect it will make beef safer by prompting processors to make voluntary changes in their safety systems. The agency also released a revised edition of a risk profile for non-O157 in beef.

Beef industry officials had suggested that the USDA conduct more baseline studies of the prevalence of non-O157 Shiga-toxin–producing E coli (STEC) in beef before launching the program. But the agency said it's clear that the strains are present, although it's impossible to say how prevalent they are.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) plans to launch its testing program on Jun 4, after considering the step for about 4 years. The agency announced the plan last September and originally intended to start testing in March, but postponed it in response to industry concerns. Testing will target E coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145, which are said to account for 80% of non-O157 E coli illnesses infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that non-O157 E coli strains cause 112,000 illnesses annually. Of those, an estimated 36,700 are believed to be related to beef, USDA officials said when they announced the testing program in September.

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