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Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro: OMB must act on critical food safety rule

Screen shot 2011-06-22 at 2.44.03 PM.pngCongresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (CT-3), Ranking Member on the Labor, Education, Health, and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, sent a letter to Jacob Lew, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, today calling for action on a proposal that would help protect Americans from foodborne illnesses.

Since the USDA declared E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in 1994, additional types of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli have been found to place the public health at risk. The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service submitted a proposed rule to OMB in January 2011 that may expand the agency’s ability to protect the public from an additional six Shiga toxin-producing E. coli. Congresswoman DeLauro calls for the OMB to act on the FSIS proposal and enable the agency to protect American consumers.

Congresswoman DeLauro requested language that was included in the Agriculture and FDA Appropriations bill report, passed by the House of Representatives last week, urging action on this issue to protect the public from these dangerous pathogens.

The text of the letter is below.

June 22, 2011

 

Jacob Lew

Director

Office of Management and Budget

725 15th Street, NW

Washington, DC   20503

 

Dear Mr. Lew:

I read with great disappointment the recent news coverage indicating that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is delaying a decision on a proposal submitted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in January 2011.  This proposed rule has the potential to protect the health of American consumers from preventable and costly foodborne disease because of certain E. coli serotypes.

           In 1994, following a large and lethal outbreak of illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7 contaminated ground beef, the USDA declared that any amount of this particular Shiga toxin-producing bacterial pathogen rendered ground beef adulterated.  Federal courts upheld the rule, accepting USDA’s argument that Shiga toxin-producing E. coli are different from and more virulent than many other foodborne pathogens. 

Since then, it has become clear that additional serotypes of E. coli also produce Shiga toxin and create such a high risk of  devastating health consequences that there is no level at which they are not “ordinarily injurious to health,” the legal standard for adulteration.  The health effects of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli include severe abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, kidney failure, and blindness.  Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome is recognized as the leading cause of acute kidney failure in young children, including infants. 

Of the hundreds of different serotypes of E. coli, fewer than ten types are known to present this level of risk to consumers in the United States .  In October 2010, FSIS updated its “Laboratory Guidebook” to include testing instructions for six Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in addition to O157:H7.  Nearly five months ago, FSIS submitted a proposal to OMB that may very well recommend testing for these six or declaring them adulterants in ground beef.

I am disturbed by the reports that suggest OMB has held up action on this proposal and even more concerned about reports that the Agency may be working to indefinitely delay consideration or fundamentally change the proposal at the urging of those who argue that the action is a threat to financial interests.  As the public health agency of the USDA, FSIS should not be deterred from its work to protect the public health from known risks in the meat and poultry supply. 

Once E. coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant, additional investments were made to control the pathogen and better ways to protect the public health.   The joint efforts of USDA and the industry have had notable success. The CDC’s most recent FoodNet Report notes that there has been more than a 25 percent decline in the rate of infection from E. coli O157:H7 between 1996 and 2010.  Based on the data from participating States, the 2010 FoodNet report indicates that the incidence of laboratory-confirmed O157:H7 disease decreased from 2.62 cases per 100,000 people in 1996 to 0.99 per 100,000 people in 2009.  At the same time, the incidence of non-O157:H7 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli more than quadrupled.

It is for this very reason that the language copied below was included in the report that accompanied the FY2012 House Agriculture Appropriations bill that was recently passed by the House of Representatives:

E. coli serotypes.–The Committee is aware that the latest foodborne illness estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that more than 113,000 Americans become sick from E. coli serotypes other than E. coli 0157:H7. E. coli 0157:H7 is already considered an adulterant by FSIS, and the Committee urges the Administration to take the necessary steps against these pathogens to protect the public health.”

Thank you for your consideration of this request, and I look forward to continuing to  work together to  protect the health of Americans and control the health costs associated with preventable diseases. 

 

Sincerely,

 

Rosa L. DeLauro

     Member of Congress