Lack of E. Coli Regulation Imperils Consumers
by Matthew Madia, 10/5/2009
The Sunday New York Times’ exposé on ground beef and E. coli is a must read for anyone concerned about food safety. There is too much good information in the story – which begins by recounting the tale of a young woman who became frighteningly ill after eating a frozen hamburger – to recount here, but this particular passage is maddening:
The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing [beef] trimmings [used for hamburgers] a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”
The solution, of course, would be to introduce mandatory E. coli testing. Currently, regulations do not exist to require testing at any point along the supply chain:
In August 2008, the U.S.D.A. issued a draft guideline again urging, but not ordering, processors to test ingredients before grinding. “Optimally, every production lot should be sampled and tested before leaving the supplier and again before use at the receiver,” the draft guideline said.
But the department received critical comments on the guideline, which has not been made official. Industry officials said that the cost of testing could unfairly burden small processors and that slaughterhouses already test. […]
Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said.
By the way, here is FSIS’s mission statement:
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.
The emphasis is mine. I would have emphasized the part about impacts on industry, but it’s noticeably absent.
Eight months into his administration, President Obama has yet to nominate an individual to head FSIS. Clearly, the agency needs a leader who will adopt a consumer-first approach. E. coli testing, and other regulatory changes, is necessary to ensure public health.