Op-ed – Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
William Marler and Paul Nunes
Guest essayists

(February 27, 2007) — In 1906, Upton Sinclair penned his great American novel The Jungle about the corrupt meat-packing industry. He described in shocking detail how dead rats were processed into sausage while bribed inspectors looked the other way. The book inspired great change in the industry.

One hundred years later, the American Meat Institute can boast that since 1999, the incidence of E. coli in ground beef samples tested by the Agriculture Department has declined by 80 percent to a fraction of a percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat have declined by 42 percent.

How did this change happen? Michael Taylor, head of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection in the mid-1990s, introduced a mandatory risk-management system requiring meat processors to adopt precautions such as carcass washes, citric acid sprays, steam pasteurization and air-exchange systems. The U.S. meat industry now staffs in-house microbiologists or contracts with outside labs to test for E. coli and other contaminants before meat is shipped to consumers.

Today, however, the apparent greater risk to the public is not meat, but produce. In recent months as many as 150 people across the Northeast and upper Midwest became ill after eating contaminated lettuce at fast-food restaurants.

A few months ago, 200 people got sick and at least four died from eating E. coli-contaminated spinach. In September 2005, more than two dozen were sickened, including one young girl who suffered acute kidney failure, after eating bagged, pre-washed lettuce. Similar outbreaks occurred in 2002 and 2003.

The Food and Drug Administration reported more than 21 E. coli outbreaks related to fresh leafy produce in the last 10 years with nearly 1,000 sickened. Upstate New York is not immune. The New York Department of Health confirms that many victims of the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak are residents of western and central New York.

To prevent future outbreaks, we need to serve notice to produce processors that E. coli is an adulterant that will no longer be tolerated in our fresh produce supply. The produce industry must adopt the same attitude that meat processors adopted years ago.

Moreover, Congress should conduct hearings to consider the following:

# Producing an E. coli vaccine for cattle.

# Irradiation for all mass-produced foods, including produce.

# Updating our food safety regulations (given post-9/11 risks).

# Granting state and/or federal authority to order product recalls.

# Establishment of a single federal agency responsible for all food safety.

# Clarifying state agencies’ role in the network of defense against food-borne illnesses.

# Better funding for state health departments in identifying and stopping foodborne outbreaks.

# Improvement of treatment for victims of E. coli.

Finding solutions will not only help the food industry but will also help prevent innocent people from being sickened by eating what is supposed to be good for them.