The number of industry participants who would argue that food safety isn’t a critical issue for producers and processors would be smaller than the active roster of the Congressional Fan Club.
Those who would object to the newly introduced bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y) that expands the definition of “adulterated” meat, poultry and eggs as part of a modernization of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, however, would be a heck of a lot more numerous.
Not because there isn’t a rock-solid commitment to minimizing the impact of microbial pathogens, but because the premise of Sen. Gillibrand’s proposed legislation is misguided.
Her intentions might be good, her sound bites are certainly strong, but the approach she’s sponsoring gives the public exactly the wrong idea about how to ensure the safety of the industry’s food products.
Gillibrand’s S.1529 bill, which is now in the Senate Agriculture Committee,is intended to improve federal food safety oversight of by focus on emerging pathogens—specifically, the newer strains of E. coli that are not classified as O157:H7. These so-called “serious six” strains, along with antibiotic-resistant salmonella, would become adulterants within the meaning of the current regulations on O157:H7.
New York’s junior senator has been consistently critical of what she labels our“antiquated food safety laws.”Two years ago she introduced the E. Coli Eradication Act—again, a wrong-headed name for a bill if ever one existed; scientifically, there is no “eradication” possible with ever-evolving microbes, which by the way, is the basis of her current bill to add six new (evolved) strains of E. coli to the list of adulterants.That bill demanded that packing plants supplying ground beef raw materials to grinders test their products for pathogens. Most already do.
(Her 2009 bill also would have mandated that plants use independent labs rather than in-house facilities, which is rather like ordering airlines to use third-party firms to service their planes. The testing protocol, not the tester, is the issue.)
Last year, when a researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the emerging new strains of non-O157 E. coli (technically known as enterohemorrhagic Shiga Toxin-producing Serotypes, or STECs) were responsible for 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths annually, she renewed the call to expand the regulatory definition of adulterants to include six STECs known to be pathogenic to USDA’s list of adulterants for which there is zero tolerance.
“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,” Gillibrand stated in testimony before the Agriculture Committee.
Therein lies the problem.
For too many years, the public has been led to believe that testing is the magic wand that ensures total and complete safety of the food supply. And should said testing turn up negative (independent lab results only, please), they are then free to mishandle and abuse perishable food items with complete impunity.
Yet even a quick and cursory review of the pathology of the pathogenic strains of E. coli demonstrates the essential problem with testing for these bacteria: They are relatively rare and widely dispersed.
I don’t know if our elected officials, aided and abetted as they are by their consumer activist allies, are being willfully ignorant or if they truly don’t get it. In either case, pushing the idea that increased testing can “ensure the safety” of our food supply is nonsense.
Every meatpacker and poultry processor in in existence wishes to God that were true. If testing could cure the industry’s problems with microbial contamination, there’s not a company in business that wouldn’t put the proper protocol in place yesterday.
But as many a scientist and industry official has patiently tried to explain over the years, only proven interventions control bacteria. Testing only provides validation of whether those interventions are effective at a certain level of confidence or not, and when it comes to relatively rare microbes such as pathogenic E. coli, a negative test result—no matter how intensive the testing protocol and how prolific the sampling—cannot guarantee that either raw materials or finished products are totally free from the presence of the bacteria Gillibrand would like to be labeled adulterants.
Should industry be testing for non-O157 STECs? There is a solid case to be made for that.
But does it send the right signal to demand that the presence of any microbial “adulterant” is cause for clamor to label it an adulterant? Absolutely not.
The idea that if only industry would expand its testing is exactly the mentality behind the cry to “Eradicate E. coli!”
Ah, if only we could.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator