I’m sure everyone has read about the horrible, deadly outbreak of E.coli in Europe recently. It infected more than a thousand people and led to the deaths of more than 40 people. And unfortunately, the federal government has been very slow to react to the growing need for testing of ground meat, fruits and vegetables. Costco, however, has decided that instead of waiting around for the federal regulations to be updated to protect consumers, they’d just start requiring more stringent testing themselves.
In June, Costco started requiring its suppliers to test for a range of E.coli strains. This requirement applies to suppliers of bagged produce, such as salad leaves and mixes, as well as apple slices and baby carrots. Costco will also be testing all of the ground beef sold through its warehouses at its Tracy, California ground beef plant. Costco has been evaluating testing procedures to detect a wide range of E.coli in the ground beef and the trimmings that go into it. Costco will also ask the suppliers of trimmings to start testing by the end of the summer.
“We know this is where we have to go and there’s no reason to wait,” said Craig Wilson, the food safety director of Costco.
It used to be that produce and beef testing was all centered around a single strain of E.coli, however, there have been six rare forms of E.coli which are increasingly being linked to foodbourne illnesses; these six strains are referred to as the ‘Big Six’. In the last few weeks, most produce suppliers have also started testing for the strain from the European outbreak too.
Each strain of E.coli has different characteristics that make developing tests for rapid detection a challenge. Testing is used mainly to verify how well E.coli prevention steps are working. DuPont Qualicon, which makes test kits that are used by the beef industry, will have a test kit available in September to start testing for the six additional strains. Costco has been using a preliminary version of the DuPon kit in its ground beef plant in Tracy, California to evaluate it before requiring its beef suppliers adopt it too.
After a four year of study by the United States Department of Agriculture, they finally finished drafting rules in January for how the ground beef industry should handle the “Big Six” E.coli strains. But the proposal has been stalled within the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews most federal regulations before they are released. Details of the proposal are confidential, but many in the industry expect that the rules will require testing or even make it illegal to sell ground beef that contains the additional strains of toxic E. coli.
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