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President Obama's administration is considering whether to screen for more strains of E. coli in hamburger meat. That move comes as Europe faces a fatal outbreak of food poisoning. The United States already tests ground beef for one strain of E. coli. Now the proposal to expand testing is hung up inside the White House. The plan comes at a time when the political climate is hostile to regulation. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: 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.
President BARACK OBAMA: There's certain things that we can't do on our own. 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.
HORSLEY: Two years later that commitment is being tested.
Food safety expert David Theno was hired by Jack in the Box back in the early 1990s, after hamburgers tainted with E. coli from the chain killed four people. Theno's watched with alarm this spring as a different strain of E. coli killed dozens of people in Europe and sickened thousands more.
Mr. DAVID THENO (Food Safety Expert): This thing in Europe, right now, has an eerily familiar feeling. Here we've got an organism that is kind of new on the radar screen. It's creating huge problems, and people are scrambling again.
HORSLEY: 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 says, initially cost two cents a pound.
Mr. THENO: If you multiply that across a bazillion pounds, it's a lot of money. But it's a pretty low-cost insurance policy.
HORSLEY: 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 says some food vendors have been begun testing for those other dangerous bugs, but not everyone.
Mr. THENO: Some people would say, if it's not a problem today, then it's not a problem. And that's where government regulations come in.
HORSLEY: Earlier this year, the USDA proposed a new regulation, that reportedly would treat six other dangerous strains of E. coli the same way it treats 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, says testing for seven different strains of bacteria would take a lot longer than for just one.
Ms. BETSY BOOREN (Scientific Director, American Meat Institute Foundation): And that means much more product would have to be stored. 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, you know, ultimately is a great source of protein.
HORSLEY: 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 overregulation. Here's Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn grilling a White House official earlier this month.
Representative MARSHA BLACKBURN (Republican, Tennessee): The American people are hopeful for jobs, and what you're doing with sending out all these regulations is wrong. You've got to find a way to get some of this regulation off the books.
HORSLEY: 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 says there are a lot of complicated, technical issues at play, and a lot of stakeholders to consider.
But as the White House review drags into its fifth month, consumer advocates like Carol Tucker-Foreman are growing frustrated. Tucker-Foreman used to oversee food safety as an Assistant Secretary of Agriculture.
Ms. CAROL TUCKER-FOREMAN (Consumer Advocates): The president said there are some things government has to do, and this is one of those things. But his folks are sitting on it.
HORSLEY: When government regulation is routinely denounced in Washington as a job killer, fighting bacteria that kills people is easier said than done.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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