New E. coli legislation would include more strains

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced new legislation on May 27 that would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate six currently unregulated strains of E. coli proven to cause foodborne illnesses. In addition to the most common form of E. coli that is already regulated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified six rarer strains, known as non-0157 STECs, she said.

The C.D.C. estimates non-O157 STECs cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year, Sen. Gillibrand said.

“How many people have to get sick before we take action?” Sen. Gillibran asked. “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. 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 to pass this legislation to keep our families safe.”

Although, she pointed out, that E. coli O157:H7 is by far the most common strain in American beef, non-O157 STECs are increasingly found in beef imported from other countries. But is never checked for since current law only requires imported ground beef to be checked for E. coli O157:H7, she charged.

Sen. Gillibrand’s new legislation adds the six confirmed strains to the list of adulterants, requires meat companies to test for and discard any batches containing any toxic strains of E. coli and gives the U.S.D.A. the authority to find and regulate more toxic strains in the future.

Sen. Gillibrand’s proposed legislation includes:

 Amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act to revise the definition of the term ‘‘adulterated’’ to include contamination with E. coli.

 Define E. coli as “enterohemorrhagic (E.H.E.C.) Shiga toxin-producing serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli).”

 Include the following E. coli strains: 0157: H7, 026, 045, 0103, 011, 0121, 0145

E.H.E.C. was chosen because it is, by definition, pathogenic, meaning disease causing, she said.

“This strikes a compromise between being overly-inclusive [not all S.T.E.C. are pathogenic] and under-inclusive [not closing the door on as yet unidentified strains of pathogenic E. coli],” she added.

“By expanding the definition of adulterants to other strains, it will require U.S.D.A. to begin spot testing procedures, force companies (through legal pressure) to test and eliminate the pathogen, and require F.S.I.S. to recommend best testing practices to companies."

After her proposed legislation was announced, the American Meat Institute addressed her concerns and charges.

“We share Sen. Gillibrand’s desire to eradicate pathogenic bacteria, but we don’t believe that an act of Congress can make these bacteria disappear,” said Mark Dopp, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs and general counsel, for the American Meat Institute (A.M.I.). “We also are puzzled by the fact that this bill is being introduced at a time when the Centers for Disease Control is tracking an outbreak of E. coli O145 [one of the strains in the bill] associated with romaine lettuce, yet the bill would only declare the pathogen an adulterant when found on meat. It is even more interesting to consider that no confirmed outbreak of any of the six strains in her bill has ever been associated with a meat product."

Currently there is no test available to detect the six additional strains included in the bill, Mr. Dopp pointed out. “In addition, experts at U.S.D.A. have said in public meetings that the food-safety systems we have in place work equally well for non-157 and O157 STECS,” he said. “These systems have reduced E. coli O157:H7 on raw ground beef by 63% since 2000 and have helped us achieve our Health People 2010 goal for reducing these infections.

“We are concerned that food-safety resources in the private sector and the public sector are not infinite,” he continued. “It’s important to invest in technologies that will provide meaningful food-safety benefits.

“We do not believe that declaring non-O157 STECS to be adulterants will enhance the food-safety system, and we think that application of such a policy could consume resources that could be better spent elsewhere to achieve meaningful food-safety progress,” Mr. Dopp concluded.
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