Battling E. Coli O157:h7
Barbara Young

There is little that is more daunting than having to recall your product from commerce, when it becomes involved in a foodborne-illness case. It’s like having a red wine stain on white carpeting. No matter how hard you scrub it or how many so-called guaranteed cleansers you use, the stain remains as a constant reminder of that spill.
I remember reading a few years ago that before long each of us would personally know somebody afflicted with AIDS. I fear the same may soon be said of food-poisoning cases, especially those caused by E.coli serotype O157:H7, Salmonella and Campylobacter.
To be sure, E.coli O157:H7 remains a constant source of trouble for everybody. In July 2007, there were five positives in a span of three days, two of which involved mechanically tenderized beef in May and April.
There has barely been time to take a breath in the wake of this year’s spate of recalls reported by USDA as of June 21, when the unthinkable happened on Sept. 25 – another recall involving several thousand pounds of frozen ground beef patties possibly contaminated with E.coli bacteria. In this case, a sample of the product produced by a New Jersey firm tested positive for the deadly O157:H7 strain. The New York Department of Health reported six illnesses believed caused by the consumption of contaminated hamburger meat.
It seems unreal, but it is nonetheless true that foodborne illness reports indicate E.coli cases are rising despite all that has been done to thwart this lethal pathogen since it reared its ugly head in a deadly roar in 1992. Notably, December of this year marks the 15th anniversary of the Jack in the Box outbreak, the watershed event that placed regulatory and consumer focus on the issue of E.coli O157:H7 in ground beef. Even though Jack in the Box has made tremendous strides on the food-safety front beginning with its pioneering HACCP program in 1993, it remains an example of the devastation that O157:H7 can cause.
Over the years scientists and industry manufacturers have pointed to the benefits of organic acid washes, chlorine dioxide, hot-fat trimming, pathogen detection, steam pasteurization, electron pasteurization, food-grade trisodium phosphate, rapid sanitation control and automated hand-washing among many others. Industry, government and academia are looked to for solutions.
When former President Clinton cut the ribbon on the final “Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems: Final Rule” on July 6, 1996, to be published in the Federal Register 19 days later, the collective sigh of relief could be heard around the world. FDA was ahead of the game with its December 1995 seafood inspection regulations incorporating preventive controls based on HACCP. Although we understood that HACCP was not intended to be a silver bullet, it nonetheless is bewildering to find that E.coli O157:H7 continues to wield a powerful blow to the industry and the consumers it serves. Technology alone is not the solution. Moreover, the problem certainly can’t be legislated away. Sure, we need rules, guidelines and laws for consistency and uniformity. But those measures are merely pieces of fabric in a multifaceted quilt. Safe meat and poultry is everybody’s responsibility.
Although recalls only involve finished product, the responsibility for product contamination must be borne by all industry partners beginning on the farm. It can’t be about blame either. It absolutely must be about truly making food safety a non-competitive issue.
I, for one, long for the day when I can report on how the industry, in concert with its regulatory and manufacturing partners, finally beat O157:H7 into submission.