The American Meat Institute (AMI) pushed back against a bill introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) last week that would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate six additional strains of E. coli in meat and poultry products.

“We share Sen. Gillibrand’s desire to eradicate pathogenic bacteria, but we don’t believe that an act of Congress can make these bacteria disappear,” said AMI in a statement released yesterday.

ground-beef14-featured.jpgGillibrand struck a much different tone in her announcement last week. “How many people have to get sick before we take action?” she said. “In America, in 2010, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias, and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety.”

“It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives,” added Gillibrand. “The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating. We need to pass this legislation to keep our families safe.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that the non-O157 STECs Gillibrand is targeting cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year. The USDA has considered a more common strain of E. coli, O157:H7, an adulterant since October of 1994–after a Jack in the Box outbreak sickened 700 and killed four–but has not identified non-O157 STECs (or Salmonella) as adulterants.

According to Gillibrand’s office, the newly-introduced legislation:

-Amends the Federal Meat Inspection Act to revise the definition of the term ”adulterated” to include contamination with E. coli.

-Defines E. coli as “enterohemorrhagic (EHEC) Shiga toxin-producing serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli).”

-Includes the following E. coli strains: O157: H7, O26, O45, O103, O11, O121, O145

-EHEC was chosen because it is, by definition, pathogenic, meaning disease-causing.  This strikes a compromise between being overly-inclusive (not all STEC are pathogenic) and under-inclusive (not closing the door on as yet unidentified strains of pathogenic E. coli)

-By expanding the definition of adulterants to other strains, it will require USDA to begin spot testing procedures, force companies (through legal pressure) to test and eliminate the pathogen, and require FSIS to recommend best testing practices to companies.

In their response to the bill, AMI, which represents 95 percent of the red meat industry, indicated they believe the requirements could prove costly and would not necessarily improve food safety.

“We are concerned that food safety resources in the private sector and the public sector are not infinite,” said AMI. “It’s important to invest in technologies that will provide meaningful food safety benefits. We do not believe that declaring non-O157 STECS to be adulterants will enhance the food safety system, and we think that application of such a policy could consume resources that could be better spent elsewhere to achieve meaningful food safety progress.”

AMI also took issue with the fact that Gillibrand’s bill would only apply to meat, pointing to the recent E. coli O145 outbreak tied to lettuce, and claimed there is to test available to detect the six additional E. coli strains.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety attorney, expert, and publisher of Food Safety News, fired back against AMI’s statement on his blog. According to Marler, the industry does have the capacity to test for the strains listed in Gillibrand’s legislation.

“Hmm? Then why have the tests I have done on 5,000 retail samples and the 4,000 tests by USDA seem to work well?” asked Marler in a post yesterday, referring to the private sector testing his firm, Marler Clark, commissioned to determine the prevalence of potentially dangerous non-O157 strains. “And, why have the tests performed by FDA and CDC and various State labs worked?”

Marler also pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over lettuce, already considers E. coli O145 an adulterant, the USDA does not.