In the wake of increased media attention to meat safety issues, including an in-depth front page New York Times expose last week and Monday’s Larry King Live on CNN, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced yesterday that she will introduce legislation to mandate greater E. coli inspections of ground beef and improve the accessibility of recall information.

“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,” said Gillibrand, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee. 

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“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 addressed the gaps in the inspection process and improves recalls and public education, so parents have access to the information to keep their families safe,” added Gillibrand.

For Gillibrand, foodborne illness hits close to home. According to a release from her Senate office, in New York State approximately 5 million people are afflicted with foodborne illness annually. 

Among Gillibrand’s proposed food safety measures is the E. coli Eradication Act, a bill that would require all plants that process ground beef to test beef products before they are ground into the finished product. The bill will also include “appropriate penalties” for companies that do not implement mandated testing mechanisms.

As Gillibrand notes in her statement, though some grinders do test meat for E. coli before and after grinding, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for E. coli.

Gillibrand’s announcement comes amidst increased attention to food safety issues in the media and a concerted lobbying effort by consumer and industry groups in Washington to press the Senate to act on a pending food safety reform bill. 

Though the current legislation only affects products regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–it excludes meat and poultry, which fall under jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)–food safety advocates welcomed Gillibrand’s interest in USDA food safety.

“Senator Gillibrand should be commended for taking leadership on this issue. The front page story that appeared in the October 4, 2009 New York Times clearly illustrated that more needs to be done to ensure the safety of our meat supply,” said Tony Corbo, the senior food policy lobbyist for Food & Water Watch. 

“Food & Water Watch is committed to working with Senator Gillibrand and others on legislation that strengthens regulations and inspection process at USDA,” added Corbo.

Anticipating push back from meat processors who may worry about the costs of implementing increased E. coli inspections, Gillibrand insists the food safety benefit will outweigh the costs. 

“Maybe (it’s) a few pennies more per hamburger,” Gillibrand told the Times Union, “Frankly, I would be willing to pay a few pennies more for a hamburger to know that it doesn’t have E. coli in it.”

Photo courtesy of Senator Gillibrand’s Office [cropped]. Pictured: Senator Gillibrand with a constituent at a “Senate in your Supermarket” even in Buffalo, NY.