This March, America’s food supply is slated to get a tiny bit safer — a change the meat industry is vehemently opposing.
At issue is the USDA’s plan to require U.S. slaughterhouses to expand their E. coli tests. Currently, meat companies must test for just one E. coli strain: O157:H7. The USDA’s pending regulations will require testing for six additional pathogenic strains. These bacteria are often referred to as the “Big Six,” and food safety advocates have long assailed the government’s refusal to mandate testing for these bugs. As with O157:H7, each of these strains produces the kidney-ravaging Shiga toxin.
The closing of this testing loophole is unwelcome news to the meat industry, which has a longstanding penchant for attacking even the most sensible of food safety regulations. James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, went so far as to say: “[The] USDA is proposing a solution in search of a problem.”
It’s hard to imagine a more clueless and callous response than denying point-blank that these bacteria pose a genuine menace. Since 2004, seven different USA outbreaks involving non-O157 strains have been traced to meat or dairy-containing foods. Collectively, these outbreaks have produced more than 4,500 illnesses. And there have been seven more USA outbreaks in which scientists have been unable to determine the bacteria’s origin. I’d like to see Hodges tell all these victims that Big Six bacteria are not a problem worth solving.
As our knowledge of these 4,500 illnesses was garnered from passive after-the-fact outbreak investigations, it’s impossible to know just how many Big Six victims have gone uncounted – and the meat industry would like to keep it that way. After all, routine testing for these strains will give public health officials a clear indication of their pervasiveness in the meat supply.
For all we know, we’ve gotten lucky so far, and a much larger outbreak looms around the corner. Witness what happened last summer when one E. coli strain, propagated by sprouts, sickened more than 4,300 people in Europe — killing 50 and causing more than 800 cases of kidney failure.
Nightmare scenarios like this are surely why the USDA has at long last decided to take action. But the meat industry cares nothing for the public health, and is willing to deny the existence of obvious dangers in an attempt to avoid new regulations.
Erik Marcus is the publisher of Vegan.com, and the author of four books including “The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice.”