I was rereading the June 3, 2011 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) statement on the E. coli O104:H4 outbreak in Europe on my flight from Seattle to Boston today thinking about my upcoming meeting with a man who has spent over 30 days hospitalized from eating E. coli – tainted fenugreek sprouts.
On June 3 the FDA assured the U.S. public that we “receive relatively little fresh produce from the EU, particularly at this time of year.” But, “in response to the outbreak in Europe, as a safety precaution, FDA established certain additional import controls within 24 hours of the health advisory issuing in Germany. FDA is currently conducting increased surveillance of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and raw salads from Germany and Spain.” That was before the Egyptian sprouts were linked to the illnesses and deaths.
Here was (hopefully still is) FDA’s position on pathogens in our food:
“Food growers, manufacturers and distributors are responsible for marketing safe food and taking any steps necessary to ensure that their products are indeed safe,” said Donald Kraemer, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “The FDA considers any disease-causing strain of E. coli in food to be illegal. The FDA has provided scientific guidance to the produce industry on ways to minimize the risk of E. coli, and these methods will reduce the risk of the strain of E. coli causing the European outbreak as well as the more common strains.”
I assume that they take this position from 21 USC §342:
A food shall be deemed to be adulterated—
(a) Poisonous, insanitary, or deleterious ingredients.
(1) If it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health;
Interestingly, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) has a remarkably similar charge in 21 USC §601:
(m) The term ”adulterated” shall apply to any carcass, part thereof, meat or meat food product under one or more of the following circumstances:
(1) if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health
Yet, FSIS deems only one pathogen – E. coli O157:H7 – as an adulterant. Seriously, if E. coli O104:H4 was found on meat in a plant or in the hamburger you bought at the store for the 4th of July barbecue, the FSIS’s position is that it is perfectly fine – until people start getting sick.
The FDA takes the position that it “considers any disease-causing strain of E. coli in food to be illegal.”
FSIS does not. Why? Given FSIS’s Mission Statement it make little sense:
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.
When that next cargo of beef, hogs, lamb comes in from overseas with a non-O157:H7 E. coli tagging along for the trip, what will be FSIS’s and the meat industries explanation? “Shit happens?”
Here is a bit(e) of history on the topic by Michele Simon at Food Safety News – “A Decade of Inaction at USDA on Non-O157 E. coli.”