U.S. expands E. coli ban in beef; consumers cheer

Tue Sep 13, 2011 2:14pm EDT

* USDA now to test for "Big Six" E. coli strains-Vilsack

* Consumer, food safety groups had pushed for move

* Meat producers bemoan higher testing costs

By Emily Stephenson

WASHINGTON, Sept 13 (Reuters) - The U.S. government will test for six more strains of E. coli bacteria in raw beef, officials announced on Tuesday, a step sought by consumer groups but opposed by the cost-conscious meat industry.

Inspectors in March will begin testing beef trim for the the "Big Six" bacteria strains that have caused thousands of sicknesses each year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters.

Consumer groups have called for the six strains to be named adulterants alongside the single strain now banned, E. coli 0157:H7. That strain was barred from foods in the 1990s after an outbreak at a fast-food hamburger chain.

The Agriculture Department believes non-0157 strains are responsible for more than 112,000 illnesses per year, with more than 36,000 attributable to beef, Vilsack said.

"One of the reasons we're doing this is because these pathogens can survive ordinary cooking," he told reporters. "The reason why there's a focus on food safety is because it saves lives, it saves medical expenses and it keeps people productive."

The American Meat Institute and other industry groups said the measures impose additional costs on beef producers, which could lead to higher beef prices for consumers.

Tyson Foods (TSN.N) spokesman Gary Mickelson said the world's largest meat producer already has multiple measures in place that prevent various forms of E. coli.

"Tyson has a comprehensive testing program in place for O157:H7," Mickelson said. "We'll be working with our trade associations to review and comment on the USDA's proposed directive, which we currently believe will be much more costly to implement than the government is projecting."

PUSHING FOR A BAN

Consumer and food-safety groups have long argued E. coli 026, 0111, 045, 0121, 0103 and 0145 should be treated the same as the more notorious 0157:H7.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, an early proponent of food safety reforms enacted this year, wrote to Obama administration officials this summer calling for the strains to be barred.

Tanya Roberts, chairman of the board at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, said the USDA will have the power to remove "contaminated products out of the food chain, out of restaurants and grocery stores, and off our plates at minimal cost...this is not only good for public health but it is also good for business."

Vilsack said some food companies were already testing for E. coli strains for that reason.

Costco Wholesale (COST.O) requires that some suppliers test for several forms of the bacteria, he said.

(Editing by Russell Blinch; Editing by David Gregorio)