Welcome to Iowa Public Television! If you are seeing this message, you are using a browser that does not support web standards. This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device. Read more on our technical tips page.

Iowa Public Television


Food Safety and POV Food Inc.

posted on April 22, 2010 at 10:27 AM

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Iowa Journal Host Mark Pearson: Last week the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta announced the number of sicknesses caused by the most dangerous form of E-coli declined by 25% in 2009 from the previous year.  The 10-state study noted that salmonella infections, the most common food borne illness, also declined slightly in 2009 while a modest increase in Listeria was a concern. 

However, the instance of Listeria infection and virtually every other food borne illness in the study, except those blamed on shellfish, continues to be substantially lower than at the start of surveillance in 1996. While Food, Inc. briefly discussed some of these pathogens it focused on E-coli and asserted that, and I quote, "food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from consumers."

From the 1993 case of undercooked Jack in the Box burgers blamed for more than 500 illnesses and four deaths to the 2006 contamination of spinach which sickened 200 and killed three, outbreaks of E-coli 0157H7 have garnered considerable media attention.

In the film, Food, Inc., author Michael Pollan blames corn for the outbreaks.

Pollan: So, you feed corn to cattle and E-coli, which is a very common bug, evolves and a certain mutation occurs and a strain called E-coli 0157H7 appears on the world stage.  It's a product of the diet we're feeding cattle on feedlots and it's a product of feedlot life.  The animals stand ankle deep in their manure all day long so that if one cow has it the other cows get it.  When they get to the slaughter house their hides are caked with manure, and if the slaughter house is slaughtering 400 animals an hour how do you keep that manure from getting on those carcasses and that's how the manure gets in the meat and now this thing that wasn't in the world is in the food system.

E-coli bacteria was identified by scientists in the early part of the last century but the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, has only acknowledged the existence of the potentially lethal 0157H7 strain since 1975. 

For generations farmers have fed corn to livestock.  At least one study indicates the deadly strain of E-coli could be eliminated from the intestinal tracts of cattle if they are fed a ration of only grass and other forage.  But those findings have been questioned in other research due to the study's methodology and small statistical sample of only three animals. 

And a substantial number of studies conducted in the past decade alone have concluded levels of 0157H7 are roughly the same in feedlot cattle and pastured cattle.  According to the CDC, the deadly strain of E-coli sickens 73,000 people and kills 61 annually.  Nevertheless, data from the National Weather Service indicates you're just about as likely to be killed by lightening.

Since January 25, 2000 all federally inspected meat processors have been required to test for E-coli as part of the federal Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points rules.  And the USDA data shows the program has played a major role in reducing the prevalence of the aggressive bacteria at major U.S. packing plants.

Between 2000 and 2009, USDA found the prevalence of E-coli in ground beef feel to less than two-tenths of one percent.  The rates did increase in 2001 and 2008. 

The general trend over the last decade has been a decline.  However, these numbers have been disputed by Barbara Kowalcyk, whose two-year old son Kevin died of E-coli poisoning.  Kowalcyk, who is now director of food safety for the Center of Food Borne Illness, says  USDA's testing program is strictly regulatory and was not designed to estimate the prevalence of E-coli in ground beef.

Of course, any amount is troubling for federal officials.  They continue to stress proper handling of all ground beef and urge consumers to cook the meat to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees.

Sen. Dick Durbin: We have the safest, most abundant food supply in the world.  Our consumer confidence is strong, although it has been assaulted by all of the information that has come out.

The U.S. food system is often praised as the safest in the world.  But critics say current food inspection laws lack regulatory teeth.  That inconsistency has led to multiple efforts by members of Congress to give federal officials more regulatory authority. 

Sen. Tom Harkin: Barbara Kowalcyk and her family's tenacious efforts have led to bipartisan support to enact a meat and poultry pathogen reduction act which we are calling Kevin's Law in honor of her son, Kevin Kowalcyk, who died of E-coli in 2001.  This law would make clear that USDA has the authority to enforce standards for reducing pathogens on meat and poultry products.

On several occasions in the past decade, Senator Tom Harkin has introduced a bill strengthening USDA's regulatory authority.  Despite Harkin's years of leadership in the Senate Agriculture Committee, none of the measures ever reached a final senate vote.

Earlier this month, Harkin called on Congress to give the Food and Drug Administration more power through the FDA Food Modernization Act.  The measure would give FDA authority to increase food facility inspections, correct violations and impose civil penalties.  The senate health, education, labor and pensions committee, which Harkin now chairs, approved the bill unanimously allowing it to be debated on the senate floor.

Tags: agriculture business ecology economy food food safety Iowa salmonella