E. coli O157:H7 is blamed for 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths in the United States annually (not all from red meat).

In the last two years, about 44 million pounds of beef has been recalled for E. coli O157:H7 contamination.  Thousands of our friends and neighbors have been sickened and dozens have died.

So it was with interest that I was reading today Mandy Carr Johnson’s, Executive Director of Research, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Jeremy Russell’s, Director of Communications ‚Ä®and Government Relations ‚Ä®at the National Meat Association letters to the Editor of the New York Times in response to “More Perils of Ground Meat.”

I was struck by Jeremy’s and Mandy’s clear disconnect between their beliefs and the public’s perception of the beef industry, and what I experience on a daily basis representing the errors in “the safest food supply in the world.”

A few of Jeremy’s points:

– Furthermore, where there was a modest increase [of E. coli O157:H7] detected in raw ground beef components, Beef Products Inc.’s rate of positives is well below industry averages (0.05 percent for 2009 versus 0.99 percent).

Tell that to the hundreds of victims of E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks and recalls I met in 2009.

– Beef Products’ technology, which has been approved by both the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration — as is thoroughly set forth on its Web site — provides consumers safe products.

So, why again did the National School Lunch Program stop buying the product and the FSIS remove the testing for E. coli O157:H7 exemption?

Mandy’s comments, however, started me thinking a bit more:

– E. coli O157:H7 and other food-borne threats are tough, adaptable foes. But the people who raise and package beef share a commitment to aggressively finding and applying safety solutions that keep them out of our food.

– Beef farmers and ranchers alone have invested more than $28 million since 1993 in beef safety research, and the industry as a whole invests an estimated $350 million a year on safety.

Assuming that those numbers are correct (and I might even assume that they are even higher), why not help the industry that is trying to help itself? Goodness, how many millions, billions, or is it trillions, have we given to bailout the banks and the auto industry?

What if we gave the beef industry tax credits for food safety interventions that actually work? What if we paid to have all downer cattle removed from the food supply? What if we helped fund the field tests for vaccines against E. coli O157:H7 that are underway on both sides of the border – the Bioniche vaccine approved for use in Canada and the Epitopix vaccine has the green light in the U.S? Irradiation? What if we funded research on E. coli O157:H7’s relationship to CAFO’s? Or, more research on grass vs grain fed beef and E. coli O157:H7? Or, pilot projects regionalizing meat production and slaughter? And, dozens of other ideas?

You get my point?  I tell you what, I’ll walk arm in arm with Jeremy and Mandy through the halls of Congress if they had a plan that would work.  Jeremy, Mandy, you know my number.

Perhaps the Chicken, Hog and Lamb folks too?