WASHINGTON—After waiting well over the usual 90-day period, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro is urging the Office of Management and Budget to take action on a rule that would broaden federal regulations of E. coli.
Back in January, the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service submitted a rule to the OMB that would expand regulations on six strains of E. coli. However the OMB has “delayed” making a decision on the proposed E. coli rule, which, DeLauro said, comes at the detriment to Americans’ health and safety. She sent a letter Wednesday to Director of OMB Jacob Lew calling for action on the proposal.
It should only take 90 days for the OMB to take such action, and, several months later, DeLauro’s office has not heard an official reason explaining what the hold up is all about.
“I am disturbed by the reports that suggest OMB has held up action on this proposal and even more concerned about reports that the Agency may be working to indefinitely delay consideration or fundamentally change the proposal at the urging of those who argue that the action is a threat to financial interests,” DeLauro said.
While well-intentioned, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station Research Scientist Douglas Dingman said he thinks it’ll be hard to sell more regulations surrounding E. coil to food producers and manufacturers.
“I think Rosa is looking solely at ‘We want healthy safe food,’” Dingman said. “Our food, overall, is very healthy and very safe, and if we really start putting draconian policy on it we’re going to start driving people out of the manufacturing part. It’s not going to be an easy thing to do.”
A certain strain of E. coli – 157 – was declared adulterated by the USDA in 1994 after an outbreak in ground beef caused widespread lethal illness.
Dingman explained E. coli is found in the digestive track of humans and animals. However, the levels of E. coli found in dairy cows (which are primarily used to make hamburger meat) that are raised in crowded feedlots and fed a diet based on corn, tend to be higher than cows that graze. It only takes one affected cow to contaminate “tons and tons of hamburger,” he said.
Connecticut saw its own E. coli scare in the 90s when apples used to make cider were contaminated, Dingman said. At times, the bacteria can affect plants though contaminated water in an irrigation system, runoff from feedlots, “secondary transfers” such as birds, or during the shipping process.
Dingman recalled the Connecticut cider producers and fruit growers when asked about DeLauro’s letter to initiate broader E. coli regulations. The outbreak incited new health regulations, which, Dingman said, “put a lot of them out of business.”
“Farmers and producers care a lot about their food,” he said. “They don’t want to put out bad food, they will work to improve it. But if you start making policies, there’s going to be some hardship in some cases.”
But in her letter to Lew, DeLauro mentioned the success of the FDA’s move to regulate E. coli 157, noting the rate of infection from that particular strain has decreased by more than 25 percent from 1996 to 2010, according to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
DeLauro also highlighted language that went into a recent agriculture appropriations bill, that stresses the need for regulations surrounding E. coli strains other than 157. According to the bill, more than 113,000 Americans have become sick from these additional E. coli variations.
However, DeLauro voted against that bill, which narrowly passed through the House last Thursday, taking issue with several items, including “gutted” funding for Women, Infants and Children, a federal program that provides food and formula to low-income women and children.
Still, with E. coil taking center stage in Germany in recent months, OMB’s six-month wait to enact broader regulations is hard to ignore.
“It is essential that OMB act on this rule and enable USDA to protect the health of American consumers from preventable illnesses and deaths from foodborne diseases, especially as we know how dangerous these additional strains of E. coli may be,” DeLauro said. The “USDA must keep up with emerging science and react as pathogens that pose a great risk to the public health are detected. A delay of nearly six months is unacceptable for this.”