US Looking at Better E. Coli Rules

Tougher food safety regulations have long been called for as the country has continually seen an increase in <"">food borne illness outbreaks and food recalls. Now, said the Des Moines Register, the Obama administration is looking to mandate beef processors to check meat for more strains of the E. coli bacteria.

Right now, only strain O157:H7 is classified as a so-called adulterant, causing specific danger in ground beef, said the Des Moines Register.

Meanwhile, during the recent Bush administration, the Agriculture Department considered regulating other E. coli strains, but the idea was abandoned, noted the Des Moines Register.

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that every year at least 2,000 Americans are hospitalized, with about 60 dying as a direct result of E. coli infection and related complications. Most infections come from eating undercooked ground beef, drinking contaminated water, drinking unpasteurized (raw) milk, and working with cattle. It is widely believed that these figures are grossly understated since many people do not report they have fallen ill.

E. coli symptoms generally manifest about seven days following exposure and usually begin with sudden, severe abdominal cramps. This is followed in a few hours by watery diarrhea that eventually becomes bloody. Some victims may experience a mild fever, as well as nausea or vomiting.

While healthy adults can recover from E. coli infections in about a week, the disease is extremely dangerous for children, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy treatment or the immunocompromised. In such patients, the infection can also cause a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail. This complication can be fatal.

The new food safety chief, Elisabeth Hagen, in a speech last week, said that the issue is the administration’s top priority; however, a schedule to implement the new regulation was not provided, said the Des Moines Register. “I think we know more than we did in the 1990s when O157 was determined to be an adulterant,” Hagen said at a food policy conference, quoted the Des Moines Register.

Other strains can be quite deadly, for instance E. coli 0111, which is known to have been responsible for the death of Kayla Boner, a teenager who died in 2007 of the relatively common strain, explained the Des Moines Register.

Industry is fighting the regulation saying that adding E. coli strains to regulations, “needlessly divert scarce resources away from enhancing food safety prevention efforts,” said the American Meat Institute in a letter last month to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, quoted the Des Moines Register. The industry group argued that there is no speedy way in which to test for the bacteria and there is insufficient information to understand E. coli’s occurrence in beef, said the Des Moines Register. Hagen said increased focus would be placed on food tracking and enforcing animal welfare regulations; however, details were not provided, said the Des Moines Register.

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