Education not legislation is the answer to tackling thousands of illnesses caused annually by E.coli-tainted beef, said the US meat industry as it resisted plans for mandatory testing for the bug.
The American Meat Institute (AMI) said proposals tabled by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for a new law obliging meat processors to regularly test beef for the pathogen both before it is ground and again prior to being combined with other beef, ingredients or spices and packaged as hamburgers would not be a “food safety silver bullet”.
“If we could eliminate E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef by passing a bill in Congress, we would have insisted that such legislation be enacted years ago,” AMI president J Patrick Boyle told FoodProductionDaily.com. “Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.”
But the New York senator insisted the bill was vital to plug gaps in the inspection procedures in meat processing plants and protect the health of consumers. The safety of ground beef, particularly in hamburgers, has become a national talking point in the US after an article in the New York Times raised concerns about safety checks for E.coli during processing.
Senator Gillibrand said she had proposed the new E. Coli Eradication Act after a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found one in every 200 samples of ground beef was contaminated with the potentially deadly bug. CDC figures revealed an estimated 87 million Americans are sickened by contaminated food, 371,000 are hospitalized with food-borne illness, and 5,700 die from food-related disease every year, she added.
If ground beef is found to be contaminated, the bill would require the company to properly dispose of the contaminated batch, or cook the meat to a temperature that destroys the E. coli. The legislation will include appropriate penalties for companies that fail to implement testing mechanisms at their facilities, said Gillibrand in a statement.
"In America, in 2009, 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 said. "It's spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. We need to do a better job of catching contaminated food before it ever comes close to a kitchen table. My plan addresses the gaps in the inspection process and improves recalls and public education.”
Duplication of work
While the AMI applauded her intentions, the body said her legislation would “duplicate the millions of tests currently being conducted by the meat industry”. The body said “bacteria roadblocks” - such as hide cleaners, carcass washes, ensuring proper refrigeration during distribution and maintaining careful separation of raw and cooked foods and proper cooking of ground beef - were the most effective measures.
Boyle added: “Companies producing ground beef use tests to demonstrate that their pathogen prevention programs are working effectively. A test cannot make beef safe, however. It is important to be clear about what testing can and cannot do before mandates are suggested by lawmakers.”
The test result is only a sample and negative test result does not mean the product is clear of contamination, said the AMI head. The product in the grocery store has been sampled not tested because “there is really no tested product in the marketplace because the product is destroyed during the testing process”, he said.
Boyle added: “We are selling a raw product, however, and raw products by their nature may contain harmful bacteria. That’s why we are committed to providing consumers the information that they need to handle and cook ground beef safely.”