Europe is currently in the grip of what has become one of the deadliest E. coli outbreaks in history. As one might imagine, that has inspired some soul-searching here in the United States. Food-safety experts have spent years trying to persuade the USDA to step up E. coli testing, and now the department is trying to take steps to require the meat industry to expand its testing for other strains of the bacteria. And the meat industry, unsurprisingly, is not happy about that.
As Food Safety News reports, the USDA’s attempts to force the meat industry to test for other strains of E. coli are being held up by the White House Office of Budget and Management. This is in part because of the efforts of the American Meat Institute, which represents 95 percent of red-meat processors. The AMI, like any other industry group, has powerful lobbyists, and those lobbyists have an undue amount of influence in the way governmental decisions are made, or not made.
The AMI has quite an illustrious history of resisting government regulation. When, in the aftermath of the 1994 Jack in the Box E. coli scare that killed four children and sickened hundreds, the USDA declared E. coli 1057:H7 an adulterant (a legal term meaning that a food product does not meet state or federal standards), the AMI insisted there was no emergency and sued the government for its meddlesome behavior.
Five years later, the AMI sued again when the USDA attempted to shut down a beef plant due to salmonella contamination, and the courts ruled in the group’s favor. In March, AMI executives met with OMB officials to try to persuade them that additional E. coli testing would be an “unnecessary burden.”
There is no mention of the current E. coli scare on the AMI’s website, but there is a press release trumpeting new CDC data identifying 442 cases of E. coli in 2010, which achieves the public health goal of one case per 100,000 people. There’s also a press release for the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council’s first-ever hot-dog photo contest. The reward is “the ultimate summer barbecue”; if the AMI gets its way, bloody diarrhea and renal failure may be on the menu.
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