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 percent in 2009 from the previous year.
The 10-state study noted that Salmonella infections - - the most common foodborne illness - - also declined slightly in 2009, while a modest increase in Listeria was a concern. However, the incidence of Listeria infection - - and, virtually every other foodborne 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 under-cooked 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 O157:H7 have garnered considerable media attention.
In the film "Food Inc.", author Michael Pollan blames corn for the outbreaks.
Michael Pollan: "So you feed corn to cattle and E. coli, which is a very common bug, evolves, a certain mutation occurs and a strain called the "E. coli 0157:h7" appears on the world stage. And it's a product of the diet we're feeding cattle on feedlots and it's a product of feedlot life. 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 C-D-C, has only acknowledged the existence of the potentially lethal O157:h7 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're a fed ration of only grass and other forage. But those findings have been questioned in other research to due the studies 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 O157:H7 are roughly the same in feedlot cattle and pastured cattle.
According to the C-D-C, 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 lightning.
Since January 25, 2000, all federally inspected meat processors have been required to test for E. coli as part the federal "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points" rules. And 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 incidence of E. coli in ground beef fell to less than two-tenths of one percent. Though rates did increase in 2001 and 2008, the general trend of the last decade has been a decline.
However, these numbers have been disputed by Barbara Kowalcyk (ko-WALL-check), who's two-year old son Kevin died of E. coli poisoning. Kowalcyk, who is now Director of Food Safety for the Center for Foodborne 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.
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, D - Iowa: "These losses and this suffering are simply unacceptable and we must continue to fight to end them." "Barbara Kowalcyk and her family's tenacious efforts have led to bipartisan support to enact a meat poultry 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." (date key: 2003)
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.