August 1, 2009

More Testing For E. Coli In Beef

Doubling efforts to keep a deadly strain of E. coli out of meat sold to consumers, the Department of Agriculture said Friday that it would begin testing cuts used for ground beef regularly.

The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) said it was working to develop mandatory standards to be enforced by inspectors for growing, harvesting, and processing fruits and vegetables, which goes above and beyond anything the department has ever done.

New instructions for its personnel will be issued by the FSIS for inspection, sampling and other measures to reduce E. coli O157:H7 in beef.

This announcement was an indication that the government is actively working to completely renovate the food safety system.

Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to fortify the FDA's oversight of food safety by increasing its authority and mandating stricter and more frequent inspections. The Senate will likely to take up similar legislation in the fall.

There are approximately 76 million people who become sick with food-borne illness every year in the U.S. and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5,000 of those people die.

"The actions we are taking today will result in safer food in our country, which means healthier children and less costly healthcare," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

Food poisoning caused by E. coli is typically associated with eating unwashed vegetables and meat contaminated post-slaughter. O157:H7 is particularly notorious for causing serious and even life-threatening complications. This strain causes diarrhea and dehydration in people and can be fatal, especially to young children, the elderly or the immunocompromised

The FDA separately issued guidelines for growers and producers in hopes of reducing or eliminating contamination vegetables such as leafy greens, tomatoes and melons.

They entail recommendations on how to prevent and minimize microbial contamination in tomatoes, melons and leafy greens while being grown and harvested through processing, shipping and consuming.

"We expect the guidelines we are putting out ... will be followed by enforceable standards," said FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg during a forum on food safety near the U.S. Capitol.

Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says that consumers are a key element to food safety.

"Use common sense. Start there," she said. She added that fresh fish must be refrigerated promptly, and produce should be washed before being eaten.

The USDA and FDA announcements came on the heels of measures proposed by a working committee put together by the Obama administration in order to up the ante in terms of food safety.

This month, stronger measures were proposed by the panel, headed by Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius, to effectively curb salmonella and E. coli contamination in food.

A series of high-profile food poisoning cases involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts and spinach since 2006 have exposed issues in the U.S. food supply.

Consumer groups, lawmakers and the Obama administration have followed though in requiring an overhaul of the outdated food safety system and reforming the FDA.


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