Sen. Gillibrand Calls for Overhaul of Food Safety Regulations

October 19, 2009 Updated: October 19, 2009

NEW YORK—According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) this month, one out of every 300 samples of ground beef is contaminated with E. coli. The finding has prompted U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to draft the E. coli Eradication Act, which would require inspections of all ground beef prior to distribution and sale.

The new legislation proposes mandatory testing of ground beef at all processing plants on a regular basis. If contamination is discovered, the bill would mandate either proper disposal of the contaminated batch or cooking the product in sufficient heat to destroy bacteria.

“In America, in 2009, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety,” said Sen. Gillibrand. “It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. We need to do a better job of catching contaminated food before it ever comes close to a kitchen table,” she added.

Sen. Gillibrand’s call for action is also based on additional data compiled by her office, which indicate that over 900 food products have been recalled from New York City stores since 2005. These foods included turkey, ham, chicken, vegetables, dried fruit, and a variety of other ingredients.

The senator is proposing an urgent revision of federal food safety regulations that would focus on prevention of contamination and spread of disease. The proposal calls for streamlined communications between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA, the main federal agencies that regulate food safety. It also includes strategies for improved food inspection and recall processes and increased public awareness through the following measures:

• The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which aims to improve regulation of fruit and vegetable safety. The legislation also calls for increasing FDA authority to inspect all food processing facilities and provide oversight of the testing laboratories.

• Safe Food for Schools Act, which would mandate federal agencies to alert schools of food recalls in a timely manner. Sen. Gillibrand has also proposed giving the FDA full authority to institute mandatory recalls when companies fail to implement voluntary recalls.

• Consumer Recall Notification Act, which addresses the need to improve the flow of information regarding food safety across states, health facilities, distributors, vendors, and consumers. The legislation will also permit the FDA to share confidential information with the public when necessary to protect public health.

• Increase standards and frequency of inspections of imported foods in order to prevent incidents similar to the 2007 alerts issued by the FDA for five varieties of Chinese farm-raised fish and shrimp that contained unsafe additives, inadequate labeling, poor manufacturer registrations, and potentially harmful veterinary drug residues. Currently, 15 percent of the total U.S. food supply is imported from overseas, including $5.2 billion worth of food from China.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 87 million people in the United States suffer from food-related illnesses each year, with nearly 2.1 million cases reported in New York City. Salmonella and E. coli are found to be the most common causes of such illnesses, with approximately one million and 70,000 confirmed cases, respectively, reported on an annual basis. Approximately 5,700 deaths due to complications resulting from food-born illnesses are reported each year nationwide.