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Meat producers blast plan to ban more E.coli strains

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Big meat producers in the U.S. and Canada are blasting a newly proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that will expand the ban on selling of tainted ground beef to include six new E.coli strains.

The department has required processors to test ground beef for the most common deadly form of E.coli, called 0157, since 1994, when four children died and hundreds of others fell ill after eating beef tainted with the pathogen at US Jack-In-The-Box restaurants that year. The new rule, to take effect in March, includes six additional forms of E.coli that haven't been subject to the ban until now.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention, the six strains, commonly called non-0157 STECs, cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in the U.S. each year.

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"In America, in 2010, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety," U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is backing the legislation, said.

"It's spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating. We need immediate action to keep our families safe."

But the U.S. meat lobby thinks otherwise. "In very plain terms, implementing this policy is premature," the American Meat Institute complained. Its primary issue with the legislation: there aren't enough data showing the new strains are a hazard.

Countries that export beef to the U.S., including Canada, have also complained about the plan. In an industry teleconference with USDA officials earlier this month, a representative of the Canadian Meat Council, and industry group, reportedly called for "a more science-based approach."

"In a country where we don't see the six STECs as critically as they are viewed in the US, we'd like to exempt Canadian products shipped to the U.S. from these rules," the representative, identified as Brian Reed, said.

The Canadian Meat Council's website names Mr. Reed as a director and past president, as well as an executive at XL Foods, in Markham, Ontario.

Council representatives couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

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This isn't the first time Big Meat has tried to block regulations aimed to protect its customers from potentially fatal pathogens. In 1994, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture moved to ban the sale of 0157-tainted beef, the American Meat Institute sued to overturn the rule.

It lost.

For the industry, one silver lining of the new ban is that meat that tests positive for the non-0157 strains won't have to be thrown out. As long as they're cooked past the temperature that kills E.coli, they can be used in processed meats.

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