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Food safety an essential service

NEW YORK -- The deadly outbreak of foodborne illnesses in Germany may seem a distant threat, especially since that strain of E. coli bacteria never has caused an outbreak here. Do not get complacent.

NEW YORK -- The deadly outbreak of foodborne illnesses in Germany may seem a distant threat, especially since that strain of E. coli bacteria never has caused an outbreak here. Do not get complacent.

Germs have a way of traveling, and this country's safety systems, though much improved, still are not set up to detect and prevent the spread of such rare, but dangerous, forms of a common infectious agent.

The outbreak in Europe has caused nearly 3,500 cases of illness, mostly in Germany, including more than 800 cases of kidney failure and 40 deaths. Sprouts from a German farm were found to be the source of the outbreak..

In the mid-1990s, the United States instituted a tough regulatory program to control E. coli in meat after hundreds of people became sick and four children died from eating contaminated hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants. Meat producers have to test their products and take other measures to keep that common strain out of the food supply. Federal regulators can impose a mandatory recall if any tainted meat escapes into the marketplace.

E. coli regulation

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Early this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed to regulate six rare strains that already are implicated in causing illnesses in the U.S. Its proposal has been languishing at the Office of Management and Budget. To be effective, the final regulation must ban the sale of ground beef containing the pathogens and require recalls of contaminated products. It should be expanded to include the strain now causing sickness in Europe.

Fresh produce has been less adequately regulated. The responsible agency, the Food and Drug Administration, has had fewer resources and authority than its counterparts at USDA.

The problem now is getting adequate financing for this effort when Congress and state and local governments are set on cutting spending. Ensuring the safety of the food we eat is not a luxury. It is an essential service.

Related Topics: FOOD
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