The USDA will ban the sale of any ground beef tainted with the notorious “Big Six” strains of E. coli starting this March, the New York Times reports. The half dozen join the most common virulent strain of E. coli, O157:H7, which was banned in 1994 after a deadly outbreak of the disease at Jack in the Box restaurants. Once the ban takes effect, meat producers will be required to test their product for all seven strains, and will not be allowed to sell any meat found to harbor them.
The ban applies only to ground beef, beef scraps and machine-tenderized steaks. Among meats that commonly contain E. coli, these are the only ones that are often eaten without first being cooked to the bacteria-eliminating 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground beef that tests positive for the bacteria can still be used in cooked meat products, which are usually heated far above the temperature required to kill E. coli. Produce and packaged foods already cannot be sold if they contain disease-containing pathogens. These products are regulated by the FDA, not the USDA, and so are subject to different rules than meat.
Today’s ban was widely predicted to be imminent and inevitable in light of this summer’s rash of E. coli outbreaks. HuffPost Food reported in late August that the USDA was said to be mulling such a move within the year. Still, ongoing debates over food safety funding in Washington had led some prognosticators to fear the worst, so the announcement came as a relief to many.
The E. coli announcement wasn’t even the first food-safety-related news from the USDA this week — yesterday, the department announced that it would begin testing pork for antibiotics. The USDA will use new, sensitive tests to address a growing fear among consumers and doctors that antibiotic residue in animal products could present risks to human health.
Dr. Barbara Kowalcyk, CEO of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, applauded the move in a statement. “Before today’s decision, USDA could not test for these pathogens until after consumers were sickened. This is a huge preventive step to keep products, contaminated by these deadly pathogens, out of our food supply,” she said.