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Are E. coli O157:H7 illnesses going down? fighting foodborne reported this week that the United States Department of Agriculture’s newly released data shows a precipitous drop, not in illnesses, but in ground beef samples that tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 in 2004 – the second such drop the USDA has announced in two years. S.T.O.P. members are simultaneously hopeful and troubled because the data collection system that backs these claims is fundamentally flawed.
“It’s hard to say whether this is real or not,” says Barbara Kowalcyk, a professional biostatistician and S.T.O.P. Board member who lost her son to the disease. “The testing is still flawed. The samples are not randomly selected, it’s not appropriately designed…” The end result, Kowalcyk says, is that the tests have no bearing on the actual prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in the ground beef consumers buy in the stores.
In fact, Kowalcyk was so appalled by the study design last February that she volunteered to prepare an hour-long presentation for USDA economists. A year later, only a few of the needed corrective actions have been taken. FSIS’ release backs its claims by noting that E. coli O157:H7 recalls and illness reports have gone down, but because both of those numbers are directly impacted by the testing program results, neither cannot be counted as reliable indicators. As S.T.O.P. continues to answer heartbreaking calls from victims and families of E. coli O157:H7 in 2005, there is reason for hope but equal reason for increased USDA vigilance against the deadly bug. In the words of Barbara Kowalcyk, “If you don’t look for something, you’re not likely to find it.”

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