The Agriculture Department is reconsidering
how it regulates meatpacking plants because of research suggesting a deadly strain of bacteria is more prevalent in cattle than
Scientists had estimated that about 1 percent to 3 percent of cattle were infected with E. coli 0157:H7. But USDA scientists using more sensitive technology that recently became available are finding the occurrence is much higher, said Thomas Billy, administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
That doesn't mean the organism is more prevalent in the grocery store, but it could give USDA the legal justification to require
packers to install new equipment and take other steps to detect and destroy the organism, Billy said in an interview Wednesday.
"It opens the door to additional testing and control measures," he said.
"This isn't saying that hamburger is less safe than it was yesterday. It's saying that we've gotten an important breakthrough in methodology that makes us better able to detect the organism."
USDA recently alerted the industry to its concerns. A draft "white paper" that the department is circulating said it is
"exploring whether further changes needed" in its E. coli policy and that any new rules would be based on the "best available
The department is currently waiting for results from tests that are being conducted at packing plants, Billy said.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said USDA is raising alarms before adequate research is done. "The prevalence (of E.
coli) is very low and declining," said Gary Weber, who oversees regulatory issues for the producers' group.
The infection rate in beef being ground in packing plants is less than 0.05 percent, he said.
E. coli O157 can cause serious illness and sometimes death, especially in children and the elderly. Symptoms include chills and
USDA rules allow "zero tolerance" for the bacteria. An estimated 73,480 people a year are infected with E. coli 0157:H7, and about 600 of those cases are fatal, according to the
federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Two people died from E. coli contamination traced to well water at a county fair in New York. Rain runoff is believed to have washed the bacteria from cow manure at a nearby cattle barn into the fair's underground water supply.