andrew schneider investigates

April 8, 2008

Feds investigate soaring E. coli cases

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Food Safety,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 23:15

Federal, corporate and legal experts in food safety are meeting today in Washington, D.C., to try to understand what’s behind the soaring number of recalls and illnesses related to beef and other meat tainted with E. coli O157:H7.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says the last significant positive changes in the reduction of food-borne illness attributed to E. coli occurred early in this decade.

“We have since hit a plateau. It is time for another series of bold, strong moves based on knowledge and science to produce further significant reductions in illnesses attributed to the products we regulate,” said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond. “We aim to prevent and not just respond to illnesses. . .”

Dr. Richard Raymond

Raymond, who will be one of dozens of food safety experts speaking at a conference at the Seattle University Law School later this week, said his agency will continue working closely with the meat industry, consumers and the public health community “to ensure food safety.”

Much of the focus of today’s FSIS hearing will be on the safety of “primal cuts” of meat, the whole carcasses, side and other large cuts that manufacturers sell for butchering and packaging for retail consumption.

Seattle lawyer and food safety expert William Marler was asked to testify before the panel and he agreed that the downturn in illnesses and recalls from 1994 to 2004 was too good to be true.

The last half of 2007 showed a substantial increase in the volume of recalls and illnesses, greater than in any year since 2000, Marler told the panel and reminded them that the amount of ground beef recalled in all of 2006 was 156,235 pounds in only eight recalls. In 2007, over 30 million pounds of meat was recalled in 21 recalls, said Marler, who has represented hundred of people injured or kill by tainted food products.

The theories on the cause of the serious increase abound, he said, and offered a few examples.

Complacency: After five years of progress with the E. coli problem, one wonders if meat processors have consciously or unconsciously slacked off, relaxing their testing procedures so that they are less likely to detect tainted meat.

Better Reporting: When you deal with statistics, there is always some risk that a change in data collection will create false impressions. Perhaps more doctors are more likely to recognize the symptoms of E. coli poisoning, thereby increasing the chances that an outbreak will be detected, and leading to a recall.

Global Warming: Too dry? Too wet? One theory has it that drought through much of the Southeast and Southwest has led to more fecal dust wafting in the breezes through beef-slaughtering plants, creating new avenues for beef to become tainted. Too wet? This theory focuses on excessive rainfall in other regions, which leads to muddy pens that serve as an ideal vehicle for E. coli at meat-processing plants.

Other explanations are just as unusual and include illegal immigration and high oil prices. You might want to check out this link to a copy of the testimony Marler presented at the hearing.


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