October 2011 Bar Bulletin
 
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October 2011 Bar Bulletin

The Battle for Safer Food Continues

By Bill Marler

 

A history of E. coli O157:H7 as an "adulterant" and why other strains should be so classified

It seems that any serious discussion of E. coli O157:H7 always has to start with one event: the 1993 outbreak associated with the Jack in the Box restaurant chain. This, of course, is with good reason.

That outbreak left more than 650 persons ill (many with lifelong complications) and four children dead. The "9/11 for the food industry" precipitated a whirlwind of events, including media coverage, consumer outrage, lawsuits and stricter federal regulations regarding meat safety. Though the swell of emotion that spiraled out of the Jack in the Box disaster dulls somewhat with each passing year, the federal regulations that sprung up in its wake continue to generate more questions.

To understand the significance of these regulations, a little background information is useful. The stated mission of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) renders it "responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged."

To promote its mission, FSIS has the power under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) to, among other things, seek the recall of products that have been deemed "adulterated." FSIS drastically shifted how it interpreted and enforced the FMIA in 1994 when, following the Jack in the Box outbreak, the agency declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an "adulterant." This marked a dramatic change from its previous stance that pathogens in raw meat were not "adulterants."

The declaration of E. coli O157:H7 as an "adulterant" was met with strong opposition from the meat industry. In a lawsuit filed soon after the 1994 declaration, the industry accused the FSIS of not following proper rulemaking procedures and of acting in an arbitrary and capricious manner beyond its legal authority. The U.S. District Court held, however, that the FSIS was allowed to interpret the FMIA and has the power to declare substances to be "adulterants" with the intended purpose of spurring the meat industry to create and implement preventive measures.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. coli O157:H7 causes 73,000 illnesses and 50 deaths every year in the United States. Another six E. coli strains — O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145 — are considered less pervasive, sickening "only" an estimated 37,000 people a year and killing nearly 30. While E. coli O157:H7 is considered an adulterant in beef by the USDA (particularly ground beef), the other six strains are not.


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