Co-authored by Brian Gross 

Foodborne IllnessThe USDA has recently announced that it will delay implementation of a controversial new program to extend its Zero Tolerance Policy for E. coli 0157:H7 to include six additional E. coli serogroups:  O26; O45; O103; O111; O121; and O145, which the USDA declared adulterants in non-intact raw beef.  The new policy, which was to take effect on March 5, would require routine testing of raw beef for these six additional serogroups, and would prohibit any beef found to carry one of these pathogens from entering the food chain.

Although more than 700 serotypes of E. coli have been identified, very of few of those are foodborne pathogens.  In fact, only Shiga Toxin producing E. coli (STEC) serotypes are considered foodborne pathogens.  While there are but a few E. coli serotypes which are considered to be foodborne pathogens, theSTECserotypes are extremely virulent and require very little human exposure to cause infection.  The CDC estimates that there are approximately 265,000STECrelated illnesses each year, 64% of which are attributable to non-0157:H7 E. coli.

Compare that figure to the numbers 700 and 4, which is the reported amount of E. coli 0157:H7 related illnesses and deaths stemming from an outbreak traced to undercooked and contaminated meat served at a Jack in the Box on the west coast in 1993 and an expanded scope under the USDA’s policy make perfect sense.

The question remains however; despite heightened scrutiny, better processes and scientific advances why are we continuing to see a persistent increase in reported outbreaks and recalls related to E. coli? It seems counterintuitive. Dr. Marc Siegel, a senior contributor to the Fox News Channel’s Medical A Team offers up some valuable insights.

I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Siegel. Fear is one of the largest pathogens and unfortunately many attorneys are capitalizing on this symptom. Not only are we seeing a staggering increase in the number of reported E. coli illnesses, so too are the number of foodborne illness claims filed each year.

The result is that many good companies are now expending more resources then ever to defend foodborne illness claims, while at the same time working tirelessly to comply with a well intentioned, yet constantly evolving governmental mandate. As National Council for the one of the largest food service providers in the world, we’ve seen first hand how proactive compliance and best practices can have a significant impact in minimizing risk and exposure. Companies who truly care about their products embrace food safety because they understand that there is more at stake than the bottom line. Closely monitoring suppliers, using scalable HACCP Plans and implementing aggressive standards for quality control not only protect a company’s brand, but its customers. This makes it easier to withstand attacks from plaintiffs counsel so you can continue to put food on everyone’s table, including your shareholders.