November 19, 2009

Gillibrand Introduces First Ever Legislation To Federally Mandate E. Coli Testing Of All Ground Beef

Recent USDA Report Shows: Nearly 1 in 300 Samples of Ground Beef Contain E. coli

Washington, DC - U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the first New York senator to sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, announced today the introduction of the E. coli Eradication Act  - legislation she authored that would for the first time federally mandate testing of all ground beef for E. coli. The annual number of national recalls of ground beef and other beef products contaminated with E. coli is in the double digits - at least a dozen so far this year.  During a 2008 industry-wide sampling of all ground beef produced, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that 0.32 percent of ground beef was contaminated with E. coli - nearly 1 in every 300 samples.

"For too many people, eating a hamburger has been a life altering experience. As a mother of two young boys, the health and safety of the food families eat is one of my top priorities as Senator," said Senator Gillibrand. "It's time for a fundamentally new approach to food safety that catches contaminated food before it ever comes close to a kitchen table. The E. coli Eradication Act is an important step towards ensuring that the food going straight to kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants is properly tested and safe."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year an estimated 87 million Americans are sickened by contaminated food, 371,000 are hospitalized with food-borne illness, and 5,700 die from food-related disease.  Across New York State, approximately 5 million people are afflicted with a food-borne illness each year. While the USDA has made some progress improving food safety regulations, the nation's food safety laws have not been significantly overhauled in more than a century, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Ground beef is especially vulnerable to E. coli because its source material is not from a single cut of meat, rather, it is a compilation of trimmings from many parts, including fat that lies near the surface of possibly contaminated hide. While some grinders that process ground beef voluntarily test the meat before and after grinding, there is currently no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for E. coli.

Senator Gillibrand's E. coli Eradication Act would require plants that produce the cuts and trimmings that make ground beef to test their products regularly before it is ground and again before all the components are ground together. For those facilities where source trim and grinding occurs at the same facility, the legislation requires one test of the source trim and another test of the final ground product. If ground beef is found to be contaminated, the bill requires the company to properly dispose of the contaminated batch, or cook the meat to a temperature that destroys the E. coli. 

To ensure that imported ground beef and trim meets the same safety standards as domestic beef products, Gillibrand's legislation requires foreign facilities to certify their product has been tested for E. coli in order to be eligible for importation into the country. Further, the domestic facility receiving the product shall be required to verify the results with secondary testing.

The E. Coli Eradication Act would also require slaughterhouses, producers and grinding facilities receiving trimmings to use independent testing facilities operating under annual contracts. The requirement of an annual contract would prevent companies from firing a testing facility as retribution for too many positive E. coli test results found by the lab.

To help reduce the burden on small producers, a threshold of 25,000 lbs of trim per day has been set for compliance implementation. Those producers under the threshold have 3 years before they must comply with the new regulation. Approximately 90 percent of producers are above the threshold and 86 plants produce roughly 75 percent of all ground beef.

Lastly, the legislation calls for habitual violators to be listed on a public website. Any slaughterhouse or processing establishment that produces or distributes trim with positive E. coli test results for 3 consecutive days, or more than 10 times per year, will be deemed a habitual violator. The bill also establishes regulatory action for plants that fail to test or fail to notify the USDA Secretary of positive E. coli results. 

As part of Gillibrand's comprehensive food safety plan, the Senator has also announced a commitment to improving public education in the event of food outbreaks. To make sure information about food-borne illnesses and recalls is distributed accurately and efficiently, Senator Gillibrand is authoring the Consumer Recall Notification Act - legislation that would direct the Secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA, as well as the Commissioner of the FDA to improve communication among states, state and local health departments, food distributors and vendors to provide consumers with faster and more complete information.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Provide front-line health professionals, such as emergency department practitioners, pediatricians, and family practitioners, with information about symptoms to documents and tests that should be performed to diagnose foodborne illness;
  • Develop a procedure to distribute regional and national advisories concerning food safety;
  • Allow the FDA to share trade secrets, and commercial or financial information, and its list of registered facilities with other federal, state, local and foreign agencies - provided those agencies can assure confidentially of the information;
  • Require that retailers be directly notified of Class I recalls within 24 hours of the public announcement or face a $1000 per day penalty;
  • Develop standardized formats for written and broadcast advisories;
  • Mandate on-site notification of a recalled product by posting notification in the freezer case or shelving unit where the product is, or has been sold;
  • Mandate that retail establishments that collect customer information from customer cards must use that data to notify their customers if they purchased products that have been subject to a Class I recall.