Washington, D.C. – As a previously unknown strain of E. coli is claiming lives in Europe, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is fighting to protect funding for the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the first major update to America’s food safety laws in nearly a century that Senator Gillibrand fought hard last year to pass. The new law puts new checks on domestic and imported vegetables and other food to protect Americans from food-borne illnesses. Federal funding for food safety at both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was cut by $122 million in the FY2012 budget by House Republicans.

To establish better protections for America’s meat supply, Senator Gillibrand today introduced new meat safety legislation that would target all high-risk pathogens and all currently unregulated strains of E. coli found in the meat supply that have been proven to cause food-borne illnesses.

“How many more outbreaks will we allow, and how many more lives will we lose, before we wake up and take real action,” Senator Gillibrand said. “We’ve known the hazards of E. coli for years. It’s time we get serious, and keep contaminated food in check before it ever reaches a grocery store shelf or kitchen.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans get sick each year from food contaminated by any one of dozens of bacteria, viruses and parasitic protenzoa. Food-borne pathogens cause a broad range of illnesses, as well as organ failure, paralysis, neurological impairments, blindness, stillbirths and even death.

Every year, 48 million people become sick, 125,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from food-borne illnesses caused by contamination from any one of a number of microbial pathogens.

Approximately 3.2 million New Yorkers are infected with food-borne illnesses each year.

In New York City, an estimate of over 1.3 million are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year

In Western New York, an estimate of nearly 240,000 are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

In the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region, an estimate of over 208,000 are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

In Central New York, an estimate of over 188,000 are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

In the Southern Tier, an estimate of over 91,000 are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

In the Capital Region, an estimate of over 188,000 are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

In the North Country, an estimate of over 82,000 are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

In the Hudson Valley, an estimate of over 378,000 are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

On Long Island, an estimate of over 477,000 are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year.

New Meat Safety Measures

E. coli 0157:H7 is by far the most common strain in American beef. However, non-0157 STECs are increasingly found in beef imported from other countries, but is never checked for since current law only requires imported ground beef to be checked for E. coli 0157:H7.

Senator Gillibrand’s new legislation targets and tests for the pathogens that cause the vast majority of food-borne illnesses and deaths in the U.S. in order of prevalence: Salmonella spp., Toxoplasma gondii, Campylobacter spp., E.coli 0157:H7, and E.coli non-O157 STEC.

The legislation builds on an effort that Senator Gillibrand led last year to add confirmed strains of E. coli to the list of adulterants (0157: H7, 026, 045, 0103, 011, 0121, 0145, 0104: H4), require meat companies to test for any batches containing any toxic strains of E. coli, and give the USDA the authority to find and regulate more toxic strains in the future.

Specifically, the legislation addresses E. coli in meat by:

Requiring plants that produce the cuts and trimmings that make ground beef to test their products regularly before it is ground and again before all the components are ground together.

For those facilities where source trim and grinding occurs at the same facility, the legislation requires one test of the source trim and another test of the final ground product.

If ground beef is found to be contaminated, the bill requires the company to properly dispose of the contaminated batch, or cook the meat to a temperature that destroys the E. coli.

Requiring foreign facilities to certify their product has been tested for E. coli to be eligible for importation into the country. The domestic facility receiving the product would be required to verify the results with secondary testing.

Requiring slaughterhouses, producers and grinding facilities receiving trimmings to use independent testing facilities operating under annual contracts. The requirement of an annual contract would prevent companies from firing a testing facility as retribution for too many positive E. coli test results found by the lab.

Sets a threshold of 25,000 lbs of trim per day for compliance implementation to reduce the burden on small producers. Those producers under the threshold have 3 years before they must comply with the new regulation. Approximately 90 percent of producers are above the threshold and 86 plants produce roughly 75 percent of all ground beef.

Calls for habitual violators to be listed on a public website. Any slaughterhouse or processing establishment that produces or distributes trim with positive E. coli test results for 3 consecutive days, or more than 10 times per year, will be deemed a habitual violator. The bill also establishes regulatory action for plants that fail to test or fail to notify the USDA Secretary of positive E. coli results.

Additionally, Senator Gillibrand is urging the FDA’s new under secretary for food safety, Elisabeth Hagan, to begin listing all pathogenic forms of E. coli, not just O157:H7, as an adulterant in our meat supply.

Senator Gillibrand’s full letter:

June 7, 2011

Dear Under Secretary Hagan,

I am writing to you today to urge you to list all pathogenic forms of E.coli, not just 0157:H7, as an adulterant in our meat supply. In April of 2010, I wrote to Secretary Vilsack regarding this critical issue of public health and safety. Since your appointment to Under Secretary for Food Safety in September of 2010, I have looked forward to your action on this issue. The recent deadly outbreak of 0104:H4 in Europe is a tragic lesson of what can happen when these pathogenic forms of E.coli are not tested in our food supply. I urge you to please take urgent action and deem the pathogenic forms of E.coli as adulterants.

In light of current scientific and medical research, the health hazards posed by Shiga Toxin producing E.coli (STECs) are undeniable. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recognized these hazards in 2000 when the agency made all STEC nationally notifiable. Since reporting was implemented in 2001, instances of non-O157 STEC have steadily increased year by year.

In 2005 alone, 501 cases of non-O157 STEC were reported through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. This has become an issue that is too important and too urgent to ignore any longer. Indeed, in a presentation given on September 14, 2009, L. Hannah Gould, MS, PhD from the CDC stated that non-O157 STEC causes an estimated 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths annually.

As the numbers of reported illnesses from non-O157 STEC steadily increase, immediate action on this issue is critical. Without urgent regulatory action, we as a country are at risk of a tragic outbreak like the one in Europe. Please protect the American dinner table from unnecessary risk.

Protecting Food Safety Funding

In May, House Republicans unveiled their plan to cut funding to the FDA and USDA for food safety by $122 million for FY2012, essentially handcuffing the FDA from being able to meet new food safety requirements, including increased inspections of food processing plants, improved coordination with state health departments, and implementing Senator Gillibrand’s recall alert measure that requires grocery stores and food distributors to effectively and proactively alert consumers when food recalls occur. Click here for more information on Senator Gillibrand recall alert measure.

Senator Gillibrand joined with a group of her Senate colleagues writing to Agriculture Committee Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Ranking Member Roy Blunt (R-MO) urging them to fully fund the food safety system through the FDA and Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) at the USDA.