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E. Coli Carried by Nearly Half of Cattle

reported by Melissa Lovin

According to government research about half of the cattle at the nation's feed lots carry the deadly E. coli bacteria during the summer. This new data makes the statistics nearly ten times the levels previously thought. According to Agriculture Department scientists, this does not make E. coli O157:H7 more likely to show up in the supermarket. However, the findings were significant enough upon review to cause USDA officials to consider new controls on cattle production and beef processing.

In a conference in Arlington,VA, Thomas Billy, administrator of USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, said the the research "requires us to re-examine our policies and standards for dealing with this difficult organism".

Most commonly found in ground beef, the bacteria kills about 60 people each year and sickens an estimated 73,000 more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The incidence of E. coli in cattle is believed to vary by region as well as time of year.

The USDA's findings will be published in April's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and are based on detection methods that are far more sensitive than previously used. Consumer groups advocate government requirements of more extensive testing of beef and cattle to prevent people from being exposed to the germs. Currently, the testing is required only on ground beef and began after tainted hamburger killed several children in the Washington State area in 1993.

Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest states, "Like throwing darts at a dart board, although the government hits the target occasionally, it is clearly missing a lot of the problem".