New Ban on E. Coli in Ground Beef

I confess, this story has me feeling a little confused. The headline is this: The federal government has just moved to ban the sale of ground beef tainted with six toxic strains of E. coli bacteria, which can cause severe illness or even death.

My confusion is this:  Does that mean that E. coli hasn’t already been banned? That my food has been tainted with bacteria and there haven’t been any efforts to prevent the food from reaching my table? This new law bans six strains of the bacteria…what about other strains? And what does this mean about the health-protecting rules we have in place?

According to an article in The New York Times:

The new rule, which officials said would be announced on Tuesday, means that six relatively rare forms of E. coli will be treated the same as their notorious and more common cousin, a strain called E. coli O157:H7. That strain has caused deaths and illnesses and prompted the recall of millions of pounds of ground beef and other products. It was banned from ground beef in 1994 after an outbreak killed four children and sickened hundreds of people.

“We’re doing this to prevent illness and to save lives,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the head of food safety for the Agriculture Department, which regulates meat. “This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time.”

According to the article, here is the answer to part of my confusion: It is NOT illegal to sell fresh meat or poultry containing most toxic bacteria. While thorough cooking usually kills the germs, not everyone handles meat properly or cooks it thoroughly enough to stay safe. Especially ground beef. Some folks like their hamburgers cooked rare or medium rare…but E. coli can survive rare and medium rare.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is in charge of keeping the meat supply safe, has been considering this ban for at least four years. (Got that? Four years…and E. coli has been in our hamburger meat the whole time.)

Not surprisingly, the American Meat Institute is fighting this safety measure. According to The New York Times:

The Agriculture Department will begin enforcing the rule in March, to give the meat industry time to prepare. The rule will apply to hamburger meat and trim or beef scraps that go into it, as well as some other products, like steaks that have been tenderized with machines that use needles to poke minute holes in the surface. Some meat processors have begun to test for the six strains in recent months in anticipation of federal action, and many others will most likely begin testing once the government begins its own testing.

Under the rule, raw meat containing the Big Six E. coli cannot be sold to the public. Currently, most packing plants divert meat containing E. coli O157:H7 for use in cooked products, and will most likely do the same with meat containing the new strains, as well. The bacteria is killed by heating the meat to 160 degrees.

The meat industry is trying to garner support by claiming that the new ban will cost lots of money—too much money—and that the consumer will end up paying more for its ground beef. But there’s another point of view:

“The amount this is going to cost is insignificant compared to the lives that will be saved,” said Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who pushed for the expanded rule.

Now, to me, that makes sense. And it goes a long way to clearing up my confusion.

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