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United States of America Department of Agriculture Office of Communications Media Briefing By Secretary Vilsack USDA Takes New Steps to Fight E. Coli, Protect the Food Supply


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Moderator (Susan): Good morning, everyone. And thank you for joining us for today's media briefing. Today's announcement centers around an announcement that regards a significant food safety advancement to protect American citizens from food-borne illnesses.

Here in the studio we have Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. And on the phone from Minnesota we have Under Secretary for Food Safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hegen.

If you'd like to ask questions of them on this please let us know by pressing *1 on your touchtone pad. And with that I turn it over to the Secretary.

Secretary Vilsack: Susan, thanks very much and thanks all for joining us today and to Under Secretary Hagen for being with us as well.

From the first days of this Administration, food safety has been a priority. It's been a priority because it saves lives. It saves medical expenses. And it keeps people productive.

The President established a Food Safety Working Group and asked Secretary Sebelius from the Health and Human Services and myself to co-chair that effort. And over the course of the last several years, we've taken a number of steps pursuant to recommendations from the Food Safety Working Group to improve food safety in the United States including additional testing of bench trim and ground beef, performance standard improvements for poultry, a public health information system to identify risks earlier, a uniform incident command system to ensure coordinated response in the event of a recall, working in partnership with the FDA and, most recently, a significant public service campaign based on the concepts of clean, separate, cook and chill.

Today we take another step forward in this effort by announcing six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli in non-intact raw beef which is ground beef and tenderized steaks. In announcing and determining those to be adulterants, we are in a sense indicating that if they are found in raw beef that those samples will prohibited from sale to consumers.

Now why do we focus on non-O157? Well, the CDC has indicated it's responsible for a majority of the non-O157 illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. And it's estimated that over 112,000 annual foodborne illnesses occur as a result of non-O157, twice the rate of O157:H7 which has already been declared an adulterant over a period of many years.

We estimate at USDA that of that 112,000 annual foodborne illnesses, 36,700 would be attributable to beef. FoodNet has indicated in the last decade a 284 percent increase of confirmed illnesses as a result of non-O157; while we've seen a 27 decrease in the same period of time from O157. And children under five are most impacted and most susceptible to the severe consequences of these pathogens.

So starting in March of 2012, USDA will launch a testing program initially in beef manufactured trim to detect these pathogens. And, if found, sale for consumption by people will be prohibited.

One of the reasons we're doing this is because these pathogens can survive ordinary cooking. We hope to streamline our testing methods by using samples that are already being used and tested for other pathogens to make sure that we are doing this in a steamlined and efficient way.

Now this already compliments efforts that are already underway within the industry itself. Costco, a major retailer, has basically established this as a criteria or condition for its purchase. And Beef Products, Inc., a major processor, has already begun testing on their own. Now the non-O157s that we'll be looking at are O26, O111, O45, O145, O121, and O103.

Now this police that we're adopting and establishing today and announcing today is in line with the responsibilities that we have under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and is based on a process that was used with O157 when we declared it as an adulterant after the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak where four children unfortunately and tragically died.

This is another opportunity for us to build on the work of the Food Safety Working Group to make sure that we're doing appropriate and necessary steps to protect the consuming public and to further enhance food safety in this country. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the reason why there's a focus on food safety is because it saves lives. It saves medical expenses. And it keeps people productive.

With that I want to turn it over to Dr. Hagen for any comments that she'd like to make and then we'll be glad to answer any questions.

Under Secretary Hagen: Thank you, Secretary Vilsack. And thank you, everyone, for joining us this morning.

You know I don't really have much to add to what Secretary Vilsack has already said. This is a really significant step this morning for American families. For everybody who consumes ground beef in this country you can feel assured that we are doing everything that we can based upon all of the data and all of the science that has been accumulated over the years.

We're doing everything that we can to protect your families. This is about preventing illnesses. This is about saving lives. And we're very pleased to be with you this morning to discuss this new policy.

Moderator (Susan): All right. With that, we will go to our callers that are on the line. If you'd like to ask a question, please let us know by pressing *1.

Our first call comes from Beef Magazine with West Ishmael.

Mr. Ishmael: Yes. Good morning. I was just curious where the funding for the additional testing comes from. Is that going to be private or tax dollars?

Secretary Vilsack: This is testing that USDA will do and therefore it's within the FSIS budget.

Moderator (Susan): Our next call comes from Edward Kohan with

Ms. Kohan: Thank you so much for doing this call. Can you tell me? Will the testing protocols cover imported meats? And will it also expand in the future to include, for instance, antibiotic resistant Salmonella? Secretary Vilsack: I'm sorry. I didn't catch the first part of your question. Would you mind repeating that?

Ms. Kohan: Will the new testing requirements include imported meats?

Secretary Vilsack: Well, the food safety responsibilities of USDA in terms of the imported products into the United States is that we are convinced that what's coming into the country is equivalent in terms of testing and safety to that which we have in this country. So we will certainly work with our import partners to make sure that they understand the importance of this.

As far as antibiotics, that's whole different issue. And I think we'll just focus today on just the announcement.

Moderator (Susan): Next up on the line we have Janie Gabbett with Meatingplace.

Ms. Gabbett: Secretary Vilsack, you mentioned starting to test trim in March. When would you anticipate testing ground beef?

Secretary Vilsack: The Under Secretary will respond to that because she probably has a better understanding of the timing.

Under Secretary Hagen: Sure. Good morning, Janie. You know, as the Secretary said, we will begin testing in beef trim initially because we know or that's where we really get kind of the biggest bang for our buck there. We are able to prevent the greatest amount of contamination. So by stopping products from moving forward to multiple grinders at that trim point in the process we think that that's the most important place to start.

We're going to look at the data that we're getting back and we're going to look at how to best deploy our resources. And we'll look at expanding from there.

But the initial testing will start in trim and the components with the entire ground beef component testing program. So as we get more information about that and as we move forward with the plan to expand the program we'll certainly be very transparent about that. And we would probably do that through another Federal Register notice.

Moderator (Susan): Up next on the line we have Sally Schuff with Feedstuffs. Sally.

Ms. Schuff: Yes. Good morning. Thank you for taking my question. My question is there has been some concern about the availability of state-of-the-art tests for the other six tests. Are you convinced that you have the testing capability for these?

Secretary Vilsack: I'm going to briefly respond to that and again ask Dr. Hagen to sort of amplify. We obviously would not be taking these steps if we didn't feel that we had a good way of identifying these pathogens.

We think it's important and necessary to take this step. It has obviously been awhile. It's taken some time for the industry and for us to determine what we can do from a testing perspective. But we're confident that we have appropriate tests to begin in March of 2012. And we're hopeful that over time obviously we'll learn more.

Dr. Hagen.

Under Secretary Hagen: Sure. Thanks for your question, Sally. And the Secretary is correct. We're absolutely confident in the methodology that we have developed. We, in fact, published that methodology in, I believe, October of 2010, last fall. And we've continued to revise and enhance the methodology to validate it in our own regulatory testing laboratories.

And one of the reasons that we always publish our methodologies is so that they are widely available. They essentially are an open source. And that the industry and others who want to actually utilize those methods directly, you know, just adopt those specific methods, they can do that or they can build their own methods.

A couple of points. There were a couple of very important things when we began developing this methodology that we said were absolute. One of them was that the method had to be just as good, as specific and as sensitive as the testing of non-O157s as it is for O157. And that it had to take the same amount of time.

We were very sensitive to the issues that industry faces with test and hold and being able to retain products while awaiting test results. And now with the test result policy the industry is required to do that. So we were very sensitive to that.

And we are able to report negative results which are most important for the industry in terms of releasing product in the same amount of time that we are able to do it for O157:H7. So that's something that was really important to us when we developed this methodology.

One other point that once the docket is available for your review that you will see in there is part of this announcement includes a laboratory methods validation guidance. It provides information for the industry and for manufacturers about how to go about validating any methodology that they may develop not only for these new non-O157s but for O157s.

So we're confident in our methodology and we're going to continue to revise it and to hone it as we do with our methodology for all of our pathogens that we test for. And we welcome the input from industry and from other sources on that methodology.

Secretary Vilsack: I'll just add to Dr. Hagen's comments a reminder that we have already seen a response from several major players in this space, Costco requiring it, the Beef Products folks doing it. And I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't other processors that are engaged and involved in testing as well.

Moderator (Susan): We continue with our callers on the line. Gary DiGiuseppe with Arkansas Radio Network.


Mr. Digiuseppe: Thank you. Just a question on the pathogenicity of the big six. Is it the same as O157:H7? Comparable to? How would you describe it?

Secretary Vilsack: Well, again I'm going to let Dr. Hagen respond to the details of this. I would only point out that and to reiterate what I said earlier which is that in terms of the rate of illnesses and hospitalizations and foodborne illness what we believe to be the case is that the annual foodborne illness rate is twice the rate for these non-O157s than O157s.

Under Secretary Hagen: Thanks for your question, Gary. The things about these organisms and we've been focused on them for as long as we have is that they possess the same what we would call molecular arsenal as O157:H7. They possess the same molecular virulence factors that cause the clinical syndromes that we see with O157:H7. This includes in its mildest form diarrhea. Then moving onto more serious illnesses such as bloody diarrhea, hemorrhagic colitis.

And one of the most feared complications from all these estechs (phonetics) as we call them is something called hemolytic-uremic syndrome or the acronym is HUS. This includes a combination of anemia, kidney failure and inability to clot the blood properly. And this is most likely to occur in children, young children under the age of five and in the elderly. And of course all of the estechs that we're talking about today are capable of killing people as well.

So that's why we've been so focused on that particular piece of the science. What package do these organisms possess to make them similar?

The other pieces that we've been focused on are the same things that we've looked at for O157:H7 back in the early 1990s when it was declared an adulterant. And the Secretary already alluded to one of those important facts.

One is that these organisms can survive ordinary cooking. In the United States, people often enjoy their hamburgers cooked medium rare or medium. They enjoy their hamburgers cooked pink. And we know that in the absence of a determination of 160 degrees by a meat thermometer that these organisms could survive in a hamburger that's not properly cooked.

We know that very few organisms in all the cases that we're talking about today are required to make people sick at a very low infectious dose. And again they possess a package of unusually virulent factors that contribute to the severe illness clinical spectrum that we see.

So, yes, that's why we're acting today.

Moderator (Susan): We continue with our callers on the line from Meat and Poultry Magazine, Joel Crews.


Mr. Crews: Yes. Thanks for taking my call. I had a quick question about there's been some cost estimates thrown around. What is the cost that you all have estimated or put toward this as part of the budget?

Secretary Vilsack: The cost to FSIS is approximately between $500,000 and $750,000.

Moderator (Susan): All right. Our last question comes from Bill Tomson with Dow Jones.


Mr. Tomson: Yes. Hi. Thanks for taking the question. How long did it take to put together these -- How long have you been working on this putting together all the technology for the new tests and so forth? I mean, when was it that you decided this was an area where you wanted to go?

Secretary Vilsack: Bill, I became interested in this probably sometime in the early part of 2010, latter part of 2009/early part of 2010. At that time, we were working on the testing procedures. That took some time. And so we've obviously been working on this for a while.

And we're happy that we're here today beginning a process which we think over time is going to save lives and save hospitalizations and save illness and save people from losing work and being not as productive and certainly protecting our children and the most vulnerable of our populations.

Mr. Tomson: Thanks.

Moderator (Susan): And with that this media briefing comes to an end. Thank you for joining us.

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