The U.S. Department of Agriculture still isn't ready to designate as dangerous and test for several strains of E. coli bacteria in beef, but critics want the agency to begin testing immediately.
There are six strains of E. coli bacteria that government food-safety officials say can be just as dangerous and cause just as many illnesses as E. coli O157:H7. So far, that's the only kind of E. coli officially considered an adulterant--a legal designation under food-safety laws--when it's found in beef.
USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen told Dow Jones Newswires on Wednesday that tests are ready for four of the six strains of other E. coli. "We're pleased that our methods development has progressed to this point," she said. Hagen didn't say when those tests would be deployed.
Thousands of people get sick every year from E. coli O157:H7. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that thousands also get sick from the other, mostly undocumented strains of the bacteria, Peter Gerner-Smidt, CDC branch chief, told Dow Jones Newswires.
Prevalence of the other E. coli bacteria can be just as high as E. coli O157:H7 in cattle and beef, a USDA official said, but government inspectors at meat production plants can't know its there because they don't test for it.
"You can't find it if you don't look for it, but it's there," said Susan Vaughn Grooters, public health specialist for Safe Tables Our Priority, a nonprofit public health organization.