PEW Charitable Trust and Center for Science in the Public Interest Conference on “managing the risk of foodborne hazard: STECs and antibiotic-resistance pathogens” began today.  Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA, spoke about the particular risks posed by non-O157 strains of E. coli.  "We know, with certainty, that they are a public health risk:"

E. coli O157:H7 caught us unprepared in 1993, when a large outbreak in ground beef caused illness in 400 people and tragically, the death of 4 children.

We reacted. USDA declared O157:H7 an adulterant in ground beef, issued the HACCP [Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point] rule and shifted our focus to reduction of microbial pathogens on raw products. We implemented a robust sampling program to ensure that our efforts were effective, and we have expanded our approach to include components and precursors to ground beef.

And the data tells us that our efforts have been worthwhile.

Since 1996, when FoodNet launched, O157 illnesses have been reduced by about 41 percent. In 2009, as a nation, we even met the national Healthy People 2010 target for this pathogen.

But while we were making progress with O157, we learned a great deal more about non-O157 STECs.

According to CDC, these pathogens cause an estimated 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in this country each year. And currently, they’re not explicitly addressed by our policies.

In order to be a truly prevention-based food safety system, we need to stay one step ahead of these threats. We should not wait for a public health emergency to force our hand to address the range of E. coli threats in ground beef that exist in 2011.