Hand-Wringing Over E. Coli Begins in the U.S.

"You cannot test your way to safety," says a former FDA official

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As European powers bicker over who's to blame for some 1,500 illnesses and 18 deaths caused by the recent E. coli outbreak, American officials are starting to get nervous. The bug is on the move--the first case just emerged in Britain, and two U.S. citizens were hospitalized in Hamburg--raising fears that the mutant bacteria would cross the Atlantic. The Associated Press soothed no one with a report on the gaps in the American food safety system. Pointing out how it's impossible to test for every type of E. coli, AP medical writer Lauren Neergaard tracks the growing trend of "the other E. colis" infecting more and more people each year, and new regulations from the Department of Agriculture might arrive too late.

USDA, under pressure from consumer groups, already was working on a measure to address some of the other E. colis in beef, a policy being reviewed by the Obama administration. Researchers created tests to screen for the six strains considered most prevalent, before the toll in Europe revealed a seventh.

When it comes to fresh produce, a sweeping new law requires the FDA to set standards to guard against contamination of all sorts. The rules are expected to address such things as properly processed compost, worker hygiene, and keeping animals and their runoff from fields or irrigation water.

Even when the new law arrives, it may be a flimsy shield for the fierce bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. "You never know what's around the corner that's just waiting to bite you," a former FDA assistant commissioner told the AP. "You cannot test your way to safety, you just can't do it."

The most serious outbreak of E. coli in the United States hit fast-food restaurants hard in 1993 and led to its classification as an adulterant in food, requiring food processing plants to undergo testing and issue recalls in the event of a scare. That eventually led to companies cutting deals over how this testing would work and who would pay for it. In a 2009 investigation, The New York Times revealed that Tyson Meats stopped selling beef trimmings to Costco over their policy of testing meat when it arrived at their grinding plant. Tyson had declined to comment on the Times investigation, but after the report drew public scrutiny, they reversed their policy a week later. The story resurfaced on Reddit today drawing hundreds of comments prompting calls for boycotts on Tyson meat products.

Of course, E. coli outbreaks happen not infrequently in the U.S. these days and by now there's a well orchestrated procedure to deal with it. In March, nearly 15,000 pounds of ground beef were recalled after a scare at a plant in Arkasas sent potentially contaminated beef to states across the country, from California to North Carolina. No deaths were reported from that batch. But as Christine Gorman argues in Scientific American, this outbreak could be much different, much worse and much more deadly than anything the country has ever seen. "Given how frequently severe E. coli outbreaks have occurred in recent years, it seems like only a matter of time before we have an E. coli outbreak that is both extremely deadly and completely immune to antibiotics." First us mutant bedbugs and now this? What a year for the little lifeforms.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.