A laboratory technician counts isolated Escherichia coli bacteria.
A laboratory technician counts isolated Escherichia coli bacteria. Oleg Popov/AP
Authorities in Europe are trying to pin down the cause of a widespread and deadly outbreak of food poisoning. In the U.S., the Obama Administration is wrestling with a proposal to screen hamburger for additional varieties of deadly E.coli bacteria.
The U.S. already tests ground beef for one strain of E. coli. The Department of Agriculture has proposed a crackdown on other types, similar to the one behind the European outbreak. In a political climate that's increasingly hostile to regulation, though, the rule's been held up inside the White House.
President Obama had been in office less than two months when he announced a fresh commitment to food safety. He approached the issue not only as president but as a parent, he said. No one should have to worry about getting sick from the peanut butter on a child's sandwich.
"There are certain things that we can't do on our own," Obama said. "There are certain things only government can do — and one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe."
Two years later, that commitment is being tested.
Food safety expert David Theno was hired by Jack in the Box in the early 1990s, after hamburgers tainted with E. coli from the chain killed four people. He's watched with alarm this spring as a different strain of E. coli killed dozens of people in Europe and sickened thousands more.
"This thing in Europe right now has an eerily familiar feeling," Theno said. "Here we've got an organism that's kind of new on the radar screen. It's creating huge problems, and people are scrambling again."
The Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 was a warning siren about what became the most notorious form of E. coli. The USDA began random screening for the bug that year, and ruled — over the objections of the beef industry — that hamburger containing the bacteria could not be sold. Jack in the Box adopted its own screening process, which Theno estimated initially cost two cents a pound.
"If you multiply that across a bazillion pounds, it's a lot of money," he said. "But it's a pretty low-cost insurance policy."
Over the years, the beef industry and others have made progress in controlling that particular strain of E. coli. Since 1997, the number of infections has been cut in half. But food poisoning from other strains of E. coli, like the one now plaguing Europe, are on the rise. Theno said some — but not all — food vendors have been begun testing for those other dangerous bugs.
"Some people would say if it's not a problem today, then it's not a problem," he said. "And that's where government regulations come in."
Earlier this year, the USDA proposed a new regulation, that reportedly would test for six other dangerous strains of E. coli the same way it does the bug behind the Jack in the Box outbreak. That prospect alarms the beef industry. Scientific Director Betsy Booren of the American Meat Institute Foundation said testing for seven different strains of bacteria would take a lot longer than for just one.
"That means much more product would have to be stored," Booren said. "We don't have the facilities for that. And the longer you store it, the shorter the shelf-life becomes. And then you may actually lose hundreds of thousands of pounds of product that ultimately are a great source of protein."
The USDA proposal has been under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget since January.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have been criticizing the administration for what they call over-regulation.
"The American people are hopeful for jobs, and what you're doing with sending out all these regulations is wrong," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), grilling a White House official earlier this month. "You've got to find a way to get some of this regulation off the books."
The Administration itself has promised to get rid of some regulations, and make others more simple, flexible, and cost-effective.
When it comes to the E. coli proposal, an administration spokesman said, "there are a lot of complicated, technical issues at play" and a lot of stakeholders to consider.
Consumer Advocates Impatient
But as the White House review drags into its fifth month, consumer advocates such as Carol Tucker-Foreman are growing frustrated. Tucker-Foreman used to oversee food safety as an Assistant Secretary of Agriculture.
"The president said there are some things government has to do and this is one of those things," she said. "But his folks are sitting on it."
When government regulation is routinely denounced in Washington as a "job killer," fighting bacteria that kill people is easier said than done.