Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the USDA, dropped a bombshell this week. As reported in the Des Moines Register, Dr. Raymond explained at the Seattle University food law symposium that his agency will begin testing for at least six different non-O157 E. coli strains in meat, poultry, and eggs. This is an important development because currently only E. coli O157:H7 is classified as an adulterant.

The USDA’s primary enforcement mechanism (as it has no mandatory recall authority) is to pull its inspectors from food processing plants, effectively shutting the plants down (a meat processing plant cannot operate by law without USDA inspectors). The USDA has no authority to remove its inspectors unless products are adulterated, so it cannot shut down a plant if it finds non-O157 E. coli.

Dr. Raymond’s announcement, therefore, raises the question of what USDA intends to do with its testing results for non-0157 E. coli. If USDA intends to request voluntary recalls for non-0157 E. coli, this is certain to generate controversy and crisis. For example, what is a food producer to do when the USDA (or another state or federal agency) asks for a large-scale recall or destruction of a product but cannot provide a sufficient scientific basis? What if the public health agency is wrong about the public health concern, and the recall threatens the viability of a business?  As discussed previously on this blog, uncertainty prevails about the science, behavior, and public health effects of non-O157 shiga toxin-producing E. coli. Research (which by all means should be accelerated) may show that non-O157 E. coli justifies classification as an adulterant, but putting enforcement ahead of science is a risky business. How much confidence will the public or industry have in our public health officials when their decisions are made without scientific rationale?