Friday, October 30, 2009

Cantaloupes, Cows and E. coli O157:H7

October 30, 2009

In the two minutes that it takes to read this article, at least six E. coli O157:H7-infected cows and steers will be slaughtered somewhere in the United States.

That's right. At least three per minute. More than 4,600 per day.

According to USDA statistics, 2.81 million head of cattle were slaughtered during the month of September 2009. If, on average, 5% of the cattle were infected with E. coli O157:H7 – a conservative estimate, based on recent published data – then 140,500 of those 2.81 million cattle were infected with E. coli O157:H7.

Assuming that slaughtering is carried on 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, an E. coli O157:H7-infected cow or steer is slaughtered every 20 seconds.

Is it any wonder that local, regional and national outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 continue to erupt?

Last month, Guest Blogger Dr. James Marsden propounded his Cantaloupe Theory of meat safety on this site. Dr. Marsden pointed out that trying to control E. coli O157:H7 contamination in ground beef without controlling contamination of the intact animal carcass is akin to focussing on contamination of cut fruit without paying attention to the intact melon.

E. coli O157:H7 is here to stay. We can no longer ignore the simple fact that our current approach to controlling this pathogen in raw meat is not working. In my opinion, Dr. Marsden is on the right track.

We pasteurize milk before it is used to produce yogurts, cheeses, and ice creams. We pasteurize bulk egg before it is used in ready-to-eat foods.

Why don't we require slaughterhouses to pasteurize the surfaces of eviscerated carcasses?

The technology already exists. As Dr. Marsden mentioned, there are several ways to reduce or eliminate bacterial contamination on whole carcasses, including: irradiation, hydrogen peroxide vapor, ozone, or ammonia gas. Other possibilities might include either chemical or enzyme-based antibacterial rinses.

USDA must also encourage the cattle livestock industry to invest in ways of reducing the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in beef and dairy herds. Validation and, if appropriate, approval of cattle vaccines against this pathogen should be fast-tracked. In my opinion, if these vaccines reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 significantly, their use should be mandatory.

E. coli O157:H7 has become as much of an issue in cattle as Salmonella has long been in poultry. Unless we change our strategy, the problem will only get worse.

Twenty or more students and chaperones from Lincoln Middle School in Rhode Island were the most recent victims of our failed approach. How many more illnesses and deaths will it take before USDA, cattlemen, and the meat industry adopt a new approach to ensuring a microbiologically safe meat supply?

I call on President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to finally name a new Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food Safety, and to charge that person with developing and implementing a new strategy for meat safety.

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