Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Fear of pathogens contaminating the foods, especially meat based products, is becoming a major endeavor for safety authorities in many countries and billion of dollars are being invested not only to pursue newer sources of pathogens but also for evolving fool proof techniques to destroy them before gaining access to the consumer's dining table. Meat industry, the most affected by this relentless pursuit in identifying new species and their variants, is left with no choice but to follow the dictum from the authorities, reasonable as well as unreasonable, to ensure their survival investing vast resources. That many small players are not able to follow newer and more stringent safety regimes, forcing to shutter their enterprises, is another serious matter that must receive attention by the regulatory bodies.

Take the example of the much dreaded E. coli O157:H7 and billions of dollars being spent for its total eradication which the industry had to bear. Millions have been spent in research and the in-plant installation of multiple, science-based 'hurdles' to prevent the bug from entering the food supply chain while another fortune was squandered on legal disputes, courtroom expenditure losses and the recall of millions of pounds of meat costing the industry easily jumps into a few more billions. There have been innumerable seminars and serious technical meets devoted exclusively for highlighting the dangers of this pathogen in many international fora funded by the industry to really understand the seriousness of this problem. In spite of these frequent interactions amongst those involved in food safety issue, no clear understanding has emerged regarding the extent of danger by an ordinary organism like E.coli, which was considered very innocuous once upon a time, treating it at best as a marker organism for the likely presence of pathogens associated with fecal contamination.

While the much maligned O157:H7 has been extensively researched and over publicized, mostly in the US, what bothers the industry is the recent hue and and cry raised regarding the likely dangers posed by some other lesser known strains of E.coli on which focused attention is being bestowed by researchers. There appears to be six new strains of this organism which have been identified recently as responsible for a few isolated cases of illnesses in some parts of the US. It is known that hundreds of strains of E.coli live in the intestines of people as well as cattle and other animals but six strains have been found to produce a toxin similar to that from O157:H7 which probably could have contributed to a portion of about 30,000+ non-O157 E. coli cases reported annually. What is causing consternation amongst observers of food safety dynamics is the entry of trial lawyers into this murky area smelling massive money for suing the industry. The truth is that there is not enough known about which are the potentially deadly strains and testing protocols for them are shaky at best. There are not even standard testing protocols for these little known organisms and before finger pointing at the industry the testing methodology needs to be standardized.

Mandatory standards for these pathogens may be years away because in spite of sustained efforts since the last three years, the scientists have been able to evolve reasonably reliable screening procedures for only four of the six suspect strains. The reluctance to impose mandatory standards or banning these organisms in foods has to be understood against the above context. A ban at this juncture may be premature and can create a huge backlash in a meat industry suddenly charged with identifying and eliminating something for which there would be no reliable tool to do the job. The industry seems to have taken a stand that the present food safety strategies in place in processing plants at present are effective enough to take care of new pathogens also.
But the industry cannot wish away the fact that the six strains of E.coli have so far caused 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year, making them a health hazard that must be faced


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