June 9, 2011


Europe's E. Coli outbreak puts US meat under scrutiny



E. Coli illnesses linked to a strain of the bacteria often found in tainted ground beef have dropped substantially in recent years, US food regulators said, but the country's meat industry may face heighted government scrutiny as a deadly outbreak in Germany raises concern over other types of pathogens.


Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require testing for "all high-risk pathogens and all currently unregulated strains of E. Coli found in the meat supply that have been proven to cause food-borne illnesses."


"We've known the hazards of E. Coli for years. It's time we get serious, and keep contaminated food in check before it ever reaches a grocery store shelf or kitchen," Gilibrand said.


Currently, US meat processors voluntarily test for a common strain of E. Coli, known as O157:H7, which can be found in the intestines of cattle and has been responsible for nearly all of the country's reported outbreaks over the past dozen years. But there is no specific government requirement to test for other E. Coli strains, and the meat industry has previous resisted suggestions that it do so.


Germany's E. Coli outbreak, linked to a rare but highly-toxic strain of the bacteria, illustrates the need for greater safety measures in the US, Gillibrand said. She said that she was fighting to protect funding for the Food Safety Modernization Act, a broad overhaul of federal standards passed by Congress last year.


The American Meat Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents most US meat processors, said the industry's current safety practices are strong enough to eliminate all E. Coli strains, not just O157.


"Pathogens are public enemy number one in the meat industry," said James Hodges, the American Meat Institute's executive vice president. "If a law could make a pathogen disappear, we'd be first in line to fight for it, but science and technology are the best solutions to these challenges."


"Available research suggests that the scientific strategies now in place to fight E. coli O157:H7 work well against all strains of E. coli," Hodges added.


Hodges said federal study results released this week show that the meat industry's safety measures are working.


Over the past 15 years, illnesses from E. Coli O157 have declined by nearly half, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a June 7 statement. In 2010 the rate of O157 illnesses was 0.9 cases per 100,000 people, compared with two cases per 100,000 people in 1997, the CDC said, citing a recent study.


The decline in O157 illnesses reflects improved detection and investigation of outbreaks through the government's surveillance system, as well as cleaner slaughter methods and improved testing and inspections at ground beef processing plants, the CDC said.


"Thanks to our prevention based approach to food safety, as well as industry and consumer efforts, we have substantially reduced E. coli O157 illnesses," said Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's Under Secretary for Food Safety.


In 2010, US illnesses from the rarer, non-O157 E. coli strains surpassed those from O157 for the first time, according to the CDC study. Reported illnesses from Salmonella, another common foodborne bacterium, have also increased in recent years.


The recent study "demonstrates that we've made great progress," Hagen said. "However, far too many people still get sick from the food they eat, so we have more work to do. That is why we are looking at all options, from farm to table, in-order to make food safer and prevent illnesses from E. coli, Salmonella, and other harmful pathogens."


According to the CDC, the various E. Coli strains cause an estimated 173,000 illnesses and 21 deaths every year in the U.S.


Meanwhile, the number of reported E. coli illnesses and deaths in Germany rose this week, and the outbreak had spread to other parts of Europe as well, with cases reported in Sweden, the UK and 10 other countries. Tainted vegetables were suspected to be the cause of the outbreak, but authorities have not officially determined a source.


As of June 7, Germany had recorded 2,648 E. Coli cases, including 24 deaths, according to a statement on the website of the World Health Organisation's European office. The number of cases in Germany was up 323 from the previous day, the WHO said. There were also 97 cases reported in 12 other countries, most of them in Denmark, Sweden, and the UK.


In the US, government authorities have identified one confirmed illness and three suspected illnesses linked to the Europe outbreak in people who recently traveled to Hamburg, Germany, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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