Food safety advocates say administration is stalling on E. coli rules

WASHINGTON–Rep. Rosa DeLauro and other food-safety advocates say the Obama Administration is holding up a new rule that could protect Americans from potentially deadly outbreaks of emerging food-borne pathogens.

The issue has taken on fresh urgency in the wake of the devastating outbreak in Germany, where more than 35 people have died and more than 3,000 people have fallen ill from eating food tainted with a little-known form of the bacteria E. coli.

A more common strain of E. coli has been barred from food products in the U.S. since 1994, shortly after the infamous Jack in the Box incident in which hundreds of people became sick and four children died from eating tainted hamburgers. Now, a quiet but fierce lobbying campaign is underway to shape a regulation that could force the meat industry to expand testing for additional strains of E. coli.

And while not many lobbying efforts in Washington are transparent, this one is particularly opaque. For one thing, none of the advocates trying to influence the proposed regulation have actually read it.

“We couldn’t lobby if we tried because we don’t know what’s in there,” said Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, a trade group that represents U.S. beef and turkey processing companies. Even if she doesn’t call it lobbying, Riley acknowledged that AMI scientists recently met with federal officials to outline their opposition to any expansion of E. coli testing as rash and unnecessary.

For her part, DeLauro says she’s worried that such interest groups have persuaded top White House officials to stymie the proposal. And the 3rd District Democrat has unleashed a lobbying effort of her own.

Last week, DeLauro sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew, pointedly saying she’d heard the agency was “working to indefinitely delay consideration” of the rule, or to “fundamentally change” it at the behest of industry groups.

There’s little question that OMB has been reviewing the proposal for a long time. Food safety officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture shipped it to OMB in January. Normally the agency takes about 90 days to review and clear a proposal for official publication, which triggers a public comment and review process. An OMB spokeswoman did not respond to emailed questions about why the agency has yet to act on the proposed rule.

At the center of this fight are six strains of E. coli that have food experts increasingly worried. The most common strain of E. coli-known as 0157:H7-still causes plenty of problems in the U.S., even though federal regulators labeled it an “adulterant,” i.e. an illegal substance subject to testing and recall, after the Jack in the Box case. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 0157 strain of E. coli causes about 63,000 cases of food-borne illnesses a year.

But other strains of E. coli have emerged in recent years that are just as virulent–and more common that experts once believed.

“You are twice as likely to get sick” from the unregulated strains of E. coli as from  0157, said Richard Raymond, a physician and former undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the Bush Administration. He pointed to CDC figures showing that more than 113,000 Americans get sick each year from strains of E. coli other than the banned 0157.

In a recent op-ed, Raymond also noted that illnesses caused by the six emerging E. coli bacteria have shot up in recent years, from 51 cases in 2000 to 260 cases in 2007. And he said that’s probably a low-ball estimate, he said, because “a lot of labs still don’t test for these bugs.”

Although only a handful of people actually know what’s in the proposed USDA rule, Raymond and others say the conventional wisdom is that it would label six additional strains of E. coli as adulterants, thus requiring the meat industry to test for them and recall any products contaminated with those strains.

The six strains, called the “big six,” are particularly worrisome because they can lead to Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which can cause acute kidney failure in children, among other problems.

The meat industry says additional regulation is premature and unnecessary. They say that food-safety advocates are unfairly using the German outbreak to stir up fear and fast-track the regulatory process.

“A rush toward these types of ‘solutions’ during an emotional time when significant knowledge gaps remain will not create the food safety progress that policymakers–and food makers–seek,” James H. Hodges, executive vice president at the American Meat Institute, said in a recent statement.

AMI and other industry groups say that too little is known about the big six strains of E. coli to justify new testing and recall requirements. “We need to make sure we really understand-that we have all the facts-before a regulatory proposal is issued,” said Riley, the AMI spokeswoman.

She said at their recent meeting, AMI scientists presented OMB officials with research documenting that current practices the meat industry uses to kill E. coli 0157 also works on other strains of the bacterium. “All the data shows that the systems we have in place… destroys all kinds of E. coli,” she said. “It doesn’t discriminate.”

Besides, adding six new strains to the list of adulterants wouldn’t necessarily protect Americans from the outbreak that has afflicted Germany. The strain that’s caused so much illness there isn’t a member of the “big six.”

Instead of a new regulation, AMI is pushing for a national assessment to better understand the incidence and origins of non-0157 E. coli, a new analysis focused on finding better prevention strategies, and improved testing methods to detect emerging strains of E. coli. “There’s a lot that’s not known,” said Riley.

Raymond said he’s heard the industry’s objections to tighter regulation before, in the years prior to the Jack in the Box case.

“The same thing they’re saying to you today, they were saying in 1991 and 1992–‘No, no, it’s not a problem. We have interventions in place to kill pathogens,'” he said.

The meat industry is doing better, Raymond added, but “you can’t deny the 113,000 people getting sick” from non-0157 E. coli. He noted that not all of those cases are attributable to meat.

He said the situation in Germany has in some ways clouded the current battle. “Should we maybe say that all E. coli is an adulterant?” he asked, given the virulence of the strain in Germany. “If so, you put industry in a bind, because we don’t have tests for all of them.”

DeLauro and others are hoping that if USDA regulates the “big six,” it would set a trend in which food safety laws are updated to keep pace with the emerging science, as new pathogens are detected.

“We know that these additional strains of E. coli are dangerous, and yet the USDA’s regulation of them does not reflect this knowledge,” DeLauro said.” It is critical that OMB act on this rule and allow the agency to protect the health of American consumers from preventable illnesses and deaths from food-borne diseases.”

Raymond said that if and when OMB does clear the draft rule, it still has a long slog before officially hitting the federal books. It has to be published in the Federal Register and undergo a public comment period–a more transparent back-and-forth between industry and food-safety advocates seeking to influence the proposal.

That’s in part why the hold-up at OMB is so frustrating, he said. “I wish they’d move to… make it public, so we know who was saying what.” And what the rule itself says, too.