July 14, 2024

Food Companies Act to Protect Consumers From E. Coli Illness

Now, two major American companies, Costco Wholesale and Beef Products Inc., have gotten tired of waiting for regulators to act. They are proceeding with their own plans to protect customers.

Last month, Costco, one of the nation’s largest food retailers, quietly began requiring its suppliers of bagged produce, including salad greens and mixes, apple slices and baby carrots, to test for a broad range of toxic E. coli.

“We know this is where we have to go and there’s no reason to wait,” said Craig Wilson, the food safety director of Costco. In the last two weeks, he said, most produce suppliers have added a test that can detect the strain from the European outbreak as well.

The company also plans to test all of the ground beef sold at its warehouse stores. Costco operates a large ground beef plant in Tracy, Calif., and Mr. Wilson said the plant recently began evaluating testing procedures to detect the broader range of E. coli in the hamburger it makes and the beef trimmings that go into it. As an added step, the company plans to ask suppliers of the trimmings to do their own testing, starting later this summer, he said.

Until recently, the produce and beef industries focused E. coli prevention efforts on a single strain of the bacteria, known as O157:H7, which was responsible for scores of outbreaks and recalls.

But public health experts have identified six rarer forms, often referred to as the “Big Six,” which have increasingly been found to be the cause of illness related to food, including an outbreak in the United States last year traced to tainted romaine lettuce.

The devastating outbreak of illness in Europe this spring was caused by yet another rare form of E. coli, O104:H4, which investigators say was spread through tainted sprouts. That strain has not been known to cause illness in this country and it is not on the list of the Big Six, but it was so virulent that it made the food industry take notice.

More than 3,900 people were sickened in the German outbreak and at least 42 died, including one American who became ill after traveling to Germany. People infected with E. coli can get bloody diarrhea; severe cases may lead to kidney failure and death.

Costco’s new testing requirements come as the federal government continues to drag its feet on what to do about the expanding E. coli threat. After four years of study, the United States Department of Agriculture finished drafting rules in January for how the industry should handle the “Big Six” E. coli in ground beef. But the proposal has been stalled within the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews most federal regulations before they are released. Details of the proposal are confidential, but many in the industry expect that the rules would require testing or even make it illegal to sell ground beef that contained the additional strains of toxic E. coli.

Representative Rosa L. DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, on Friday sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, decrying the delay and urging him to unilaterally declare any ground beef containing the six additional strains of toxic E. coli unfit for sale. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, wrote last week to the Office of Management and Budget, asking it to act on the U.S.D.A. rules.

Just last month, many in the food industry said they were waiting to see what the government would do. But alarm over the German outbreak may be changing that.

“There’s a lot of companies that don’t want that repeated here in the United States,” said James L. Marsden, a professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University.

This week, Beef Products, a large manufacturer of lean beef, an ingredient used to make hamburger meat, announced that it had started testing for the six additional strains of E. coli at one of its five grinding plants.

The company, based in South Dakota, said it would start tests in its four other plants as soon as it could get enough test kits from manufacturers, which are just beginning to produce them.

“For a little bit of extra cost, they can stay ahead of the food safety curve,” said Gene Grabowski, a Beef Products spokesman.

The landscape is changing partly because tests created by U.S.D.A. scientists that can quickly pinpoint the presence in food of the “Big Six” E. coli are now being developed for commercial sale by test-kit companies. Some kits are already on the market.

DuPont Qualicon, which makes a kit used widely in the beef industry, said that by September it expected to begin selling an expanded version capable of detecting the six additional strains. The company is also working to develop a screening test for the German E. coli strain.

Costco has been using a preliminary version of the DuPont kit in its California plant to evaluate the test before requiring that its beef suppliers adopt it.

Amy Smith, technical and regulatory support leader of DuPont Qualicon, said several other companies had been using the preliminary kits as they went through similar evaluations.

“People are really gearing up,” she said. “While they might not be running things routinely, they’re getting ready for the fact that they might have to very soon.” She said the company was working to develop a test for the European E. coli strain that could be added to its kits.

Each type of E. coli has different characteristics that make developing tests for rapid detection a challenge. Food companies have adopted many measures to rid their products of E. coli. Testing is used mainly to verify how well those steps are working.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=2ee3a53ab1c23186a0c7d8e6c3c9d266

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