August 19, 2022

Outbreak in Europe May Revive Stalled U.S. Effort to Tighten Rules on Food Safety

Food-safety advocates hope the federal government will act soon to ban the sale of ground beef if it contains any of six dangerous strains of E. coli that have increasingly been found to cause illness in the United States — a step that regulators have been considering for at least four years in the face of stiff industry opposition.

The outbreak in Europe could also bring more scrutiny of the produce industry. Investigators believe the outbreak was caused by contaminated vegetables, but they have not been able determine which type. So far, the authorities say, more than 1,700 people have been sickened, including 6 Americans, and at least 18 people have died.

For now, the focus in this country is on beef, since E. coli lives in the guts of cows.

In January, the United States Department of Agriculture drafted a much-anticipated proposal to regulate six forms of toxic E. coli in meat, in addition to the most common form, O157:H7, which is already regulated. But the proposal has been stalled at the federal Office of Management and Budget, which typically reviews proposed regulations, and officials could not say when it would be made public.

The details of the proposal have been kept secret until a final version is settled on, but there is wide expectation in the food industry and among food-safety advocates that it would either ban the sale of ground beef containing those strains or call for testing and other controls. Advocates for the rules fear that the White House, which had a representative at O.M.B. meetings on the issue, was seeking to dilute the measure or even kill it. But they say that the catastrophic European outbreak could now force the government’s hand.

“The horrific illnesses that are happening in Germany will make government and industry here have to pay attention,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food safety and who has petitioned the Agriculture Department to ban the pathogens from meat.

The form of E. coli in the European outbreak is not on the list made by the Agriculture Department because that strain has never been identified as a cause of illness in the United States. But food-safety experts said that because of its virulence, officials would almost certainly have to consider adding it at some point. David Goldman, an assistant U.S.D.A. administrator, said at a news conference on Friday said that he could not comment on the proposed rule.

“There are indeed a lot of complicated technical issues as well as many stakeholders,” he said. “We all intend to get this right.”

For many, the outbreak in Europe evokes memories of a 1993 outbreak in the United States that first brought toxic E. coli bacteria to widespread public attention. In that outbreak, four children died and hundreds became sick after eating hamburgers contaminated with the O157:H7 strain that were served at Jack in the Box restaurants.

David M. Theno, a food safety consultant who worked with Jack in the Box to help it respond to the 1993 outbreak, predicted that the German outbreak would force the U.S.D.A. to take action against a broader group of bacteria. “You can’t just ignore them and hope it doesn’t happen here,” Dr. Theno said.

In 1994, the Agriculture Department declared the sale of ground beef containing the O157 strain illegal, and the industry began establishing measures to keep it out of meat sold to the public. Since then, there have been numerous outbreaks and millions of pounds of ground beef have been recalled. The bacteria has also caused outbreaks tied to vegetables, including spinach and lettuce. Produce can become contaminated from exposure to cow manure in the fields or the water supply or during processing.

Over the years, other toxic strains of E. coli began to get the attention of public health officials. They eventually identified six that most frequently caused illness, and federal officials began studying whether the sale of meat containing these strains should also be banned.

As part of that effort, the Agriculture Department last fall issued standards for tests to rapidly screen food for the six strains.

Gardiner Harris contributed reporting from Washington.

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