USDA to test beef for more strains of E. coli

On her 14th birthday, Kayla Boner got her driver's permit and then went home complaining of stomach-bug symptoms that landed her in the hospital two days later.

Feedlot cattle
Cattle move through a feedlot in Malta, Ill. The meat industry disputes the need for the USDA to test ground beef for an additional six strains of E. coli bacteria. (Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker)

On her 14th birthday, Kayla Boner got her driver's permit and then went home complaining of stomach-bug symptoms that landed her in the hospital two days later.

Antibiotics didn't work. Kayla's condition deteriorated. Her kidneys failed. She had a seizure and went on a ventilator. Soon after, her brain activity ceased. Just 11 days after her symptoms surfaced, Kayla's distraught parents decided not to keep her on life support.

The culprit: E. coli. Not the strain responsible for most serious illnesses, but a lesser-known one that her parents researched in vain when Kayla died in 2007.

"We were told it was E. coli O111," said Dana Boner, Kayla's mother. "Where did it come from? What could it have been? All these years, and we still don't know."

And they most likely will never find out.


While most of the outbreaks that have riveted the public for nearly two decades involved one strain of E. coli, the government will soon outlaw another six strains in the same family of bacteria, including the one that killed Kayla.

Next month, the Agriculture Department will begin testing raw ground beef for the "Big Six" at meat plants in order to keep these pathogens off people's plates. The decision comes four years after scientists and government experts warned of the dangers these germs pose to the nation's food supply. Since then, the Big Six have been repeatedly tied to multi-state outbreaks and illnesses.

Most of those illnesses were not linked to beef. They were linked to sprouts or lettuce or no source at all. The meat industry argues that it is being unfairly targeted. Only once before -- with the notorious E. coli O157:H7 -- have regulators banned a pathogen from fresh meat.

If the Food and Drug Administration detects any pathogens in the food it oversees -- vegetables, fruits, seafood and just about everything other than meat -- it yanks the products. But the resource-strapped agency inspects only a fraction of its plants every year.

By contrast, the law requires the USDA to inspect all meat plants daily.

And the government says it is time to add the Big Six to the daily routine.

"What we're doing is about prevention," said Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's undersecretary of food safety. "If all we're going to look at is how many people can we prove have been sickened or killed by contaminated beef before we act, then we miss our opportunity to make a real difference."

Still, the long and plodding path toward heightened regulation in large part reflects the government's awareness of another lingering threat: meat industry lawsuits.


The USDA, consumer groups and the industry have engaged in a fierce and litigious fight that has stretched over decades.

The meat industry has a long history of challenging high-stakes government decisions. The courts have ruled, for instance, that the sale of meat contaminated with salmonella cannot be prohibited. Today, that pathogen is the top cause of food-borne illness resulting in hospitalization and death.

In the 1970s, courts rejected a proposal to put warning labels on poultry about the dangers posed by salmonella on the grounds that salmonella was naturally occurring in meat and posed no risk if the meat was properly cooked.

Then in 2000, the USDA suffered a crushing setback when the industry successfully challenged its effort to shut down a Texas beef plant that had failed a series of salmonella tests.

These legal challenges help explain why the USDA has been weighing action on the Big Six for four years. Only in September did officials feel confident enough about their legal case and the science behind it to declare the strains "adulterants," requiring the government to test for them. Even then, enforcement was postponed from early March until June 4 to allow the industry more time to prepare for the change.

"The issue for regulators is: What happens if there's a court challenge?" said Robert Buchanan, a former USDA official who was deeply involved in early discussions about the Big Six. "What you don't want is to have a good policy that loses in court because it went into effect too quickly."

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