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USDA Responds to E. Coli Report

By Ed O'Keefe | Washington Post

If you're looking for the next big issue that could land on the desk of the already burdened Obama administration, look no further than concerns about the nation's food safety. It's the kind of problem that inspires sleepless nights, just like nightmare scenarios involving a possible outbreak of H1N1 flu or the next big natural disaster.

Linda Rivera
Linda Rivera, left, has been hosptialized since May after she ate raw cookie dough that was contaminated with E. Coli. Rivera was the focus of a recent Post story on E. Coli. (Photo by Marlene Karas)
Case in point: this past weekend's New York Times report about Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor inflicted with a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli after eating hamburger meat in early fall 2007. (Similarly, The Post's Lyndsey Layton last month wrote about a woman infected with the same strain of E. coli after eating cookie dough.)

In the Times story, reporter Michael Moss wrote that:

Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone, including the one that left Ms. Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.

Food company Cargill made the burgers, and records show they included a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and "a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin." Moss later reports that:

In the weeks before Ms. Smith’s [hamburger] patty was made, federal inspectors had repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef, but they imposed no fines or sanctions, records show. After the outbreak, the department threatened to withhold the seal of approval that declares “U.S. Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture.”
In the end, though, the agency accepted Cargill’s proposal to increase its scrutiny of suppliers. That agreement came early last year after contentious negotiations, records show. When Cargill defended its safety system and initially resisted making some changes, an agency official wrote back: “How is food safety not the ultimate issue?”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded to the story in a statement Monday night. "The story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic," he said. "We all know we can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend's paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7."

The department investigated Smith's case, but "efforts to find the ultimate source of the contamination went nowhere," Moss reported. The department's inspectors had previously raised concerns about Cargill, "but that they had failed to set off any alarms within the department."

Tom Vilsack
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

In response, Vilsack's statement noted that, among other things, the Obama administration already has established a Food Safety Working Group and appointed a chief medical officer at that the Food Safety and Inspection Service to "reaffirm its role as a public health agency."

But Vilsack's statement failed to mention that there's still no undersecretary for food safety to oversee FSIS (as you can see at The Post's Head Count project).

Almost no one would dispute the ability of career employees to ably run any agency in the absence of political appointees, but as The Eye as pointed out before, agencies need political leadership in place to set priorities, make the tough decisions, engage lawmakers and serve as the public face.

Earlier this year, Seattle-area attorney Bill Marler was mentioned as a possible candidate for the undersecretary position. (Read a Federal Eye profile of Marler.) Ironically, he now represents Smith. An outspoken critic of the government's food safety policies, Marler wrote in his blog that some FSIS officials should be fired for their actions in the Smith case.

Marler is in Washington this week lobbying Senators to pass long-dormant food safety legislation. He's handing out T-shirts that say "Put a Trial Lawyer Out of Business: Pass Meaningful Food Safety Legislation Before Thanksgiving." He wants them to pass the bill by Thanksgiving because of the holiday's obvious connections to food.

Considering the recent reports in the Times and Post, let's hope those T-shirts work.

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