USDA Issues New Safety Rules for Beef

Zero Tolerance for Toxic E. coli; Beef Held Until Tests Done

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 21, 2011 -- The USDA today announced two new rules to make U.S. beef safer.

The announcement accompanied the first report of the two-year-old Food Safety Working Group, led by the White House and staffed by agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Taking effect in 2012, the new rules:

  1. Declare "adulterated" and unfit for sale any beef that tests positive for any shigella toxin-producing E. coli bacteria. Current rules cover only a single strain of the potentially deadly bug, yet the other strains cause about 112,000 illnesses each year.
  2. Begin a "test and hold" policy for beef. Beef lots selected for testing will be withheld from market until test results show them to be free of germs and drug residues. Under the current system, beef that tests positive for bacteria or contaminants has to be recalled. The FDA estimates that the test-and-hold policy would have prevented 44 recalls from 2007 through 2009.

"We have improved food safety in the last two years," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a news conference. "Our new standards for poultry establishments may prevent as many as 25,000 food-borne illnesses each year."

In 2009, the FDA issued an egg safety rule to help prevent salmonella outbreaks. The agency expects the rules to cut egg-related salmonella illnesses by 60%. That would prevent about 79,000 illnesses a year, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at the news conference.

"We are well on our way to building a modern food safety system," Sebelius said. "Millions in the U.S. still suffer from food-borne illnesses each year. Thousands are hospitalized and too many die. Too often we find ourselves trying to track down the source of an outbreak once it happens rather than preventing it."

'The Work Is Not Done'

The report by the Food Safety Working Group is littered with the acronyms of subgroups and tools created to prevent, track, and respond to food-borne illnesses. The efforts include:

  • Enhanced disease surveillance by the CDC.
  • A reportable food registry to enable tracking of contaminated foods to their sources.
  • Efforts to recognize and control drug-resistant bacteria and viruses.
  • Ensuring the safety of imported foods. Imports make up 15% of the U.S. food supply, including 75% to 80% of seafood, 50% of fresh fruit, and about 20% of vegetables.

But whether these efforts will receive adequate federal and state funding remains a question. Most of the federal efforts depend on a partnership with state health departments, which face funding crises in many states.

"The work is not done, which is why the food safety group plans to continue its efforts," Vilsack said. "We are very pleased with the progress that has been made and are very proud of the work that has been done."


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SOURCES: Joint HHS/USDA news conference, Dec. 21, 2011.News release, USDA.The Federal Food Safety Working Group Progress Report, December 2011.

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