The leading Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are asking their Republican counterparts to hold a hearing on the public health threat posed by the rare and extremely virulent strain of E. coli responsible for the ongoing foodborne illness outbreak in Germany.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), Ranking Member of the committee, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Health Subcommittee, and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), Ranking Member of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, sent their request Monday in a letter to Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Subcommittee Chairmen Joseph Pitts (R-PA) and Cliff Stearns (R-FL).
“The outbreak has serious implications for matters under the jurisdiction of this Committee, including food safety, the threats of emerging microbial pathogens and of emerging antibiotic resistant pathogens, and the adequacy of current efforts at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to address these threats,” says the letter.
The letter raises several questions, such as: What are the implications for the United States of a significant outbreak of what was previously an uncommon pathogenic strain? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the European surveillance system as compared to that of the United States? Will the new authorities provided in the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 and the resources provided to implement these authorities help the United States address this issue?
Lawmakers also want to know more about this rare, deadly strain of E. coli and how it became resistant to several different antibiotics and the policy implications for growing antibiotic resistance among certain strains of bacteria.

“The deputy director of the division of food-borne, bacterial and mycotic diseases at the CDC suggested that resistance developed because the strain originated in a geographic region with high levels of antibiotic use, possibly an area with domestic farm animals or in a developing country,” reads the letter, referring to a statement by Robert Tauxe, the deputy director of foodborne illness at CDC, published by Bloomberg
“Our Committee has a long history of bipartisan work on food safety, antibiotic resistance, and other issues raised by this outbreak,” concludes the note. “We hope the Committee will continue this record by holding a prompt hearing on the public health threat posed by the new outbreak of food poisoning in Europe.”

After last August’s Salmonella outbreak, and half-billion egg recall, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee grilled executives from the companies involved and questioned federal regulators. The committee held similar hearings for major food safety catastrophes, including the 2009 Salmonella peanut butter and 2006 E. coli spinach outbreaks.