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Striking a blow for food safety

(article, Culinate staff)

Buried inside the October issue of Good Housekeeping magazine — the one with comedian Ellen DeGeneres on the cover — is an investigative feature by Madeline Drexler titled "Why Your Food Isn't Safe." As the magazine proudly noted on its website, in the same week that the issue hit newsstands the USDA finally declared several strains of the notorious E. coli bacteria to be a food "adulterant." Why is that a big deal? GH explained:

bq. This means that starting in March 2012, certain food producers (such as beef producers) will have to test for these strains and, if they are found, destroy the batch or cook it to kill the bacteria. (Before, people had to fall ill — even die — before the contaminated food was tracked down.)

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the USDA will put any regulatory power behind this new classification; as E.J. Graff pointed out on the American Prospect website, the GH article calls for "a single food oversight system with real enforcement power."

William Neuman reported in the New York Times_ that the new E. coli classification simply extends a ban already in place on the deadly O157:H7 E. coli strain to six other seriously harmful strains — and doesn't include the strain that killed dozens of people in Europe earlier this summer. The meatpacking industry, naturally, has protested the new classification, and, as Neuman made clear, plenty of other toxins are perfectly acceptable in American meat:

bq. It is not illegal to sell fresh meat or poultry containing most toxic bacteria, like salmonella; they are frequently found on groceries’ meat, and thorough cooking typically kills the pathogens.

And who's really in charge? The USDA, or the FDA? Neuman admitted that's a tricky one:

bq. The new rule highlighted the patchwork and often confusing nature of food-safety regulation, where most meat is under the jurisdiction of the U.S.D.A. while most other foods, including produce, are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The F.D.A. already considers it illegal to sell food containing any bacteria, including toxic forms of E. coli or other substances that could make people sick.

Lawsuits, anyone?