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As New Food Safety Threat Emerges, U.S. Regulators Still Steps Behind

The E. coli outbreak in Germany—identified by scientists as a new deadly strain of the bacteria—has by now killed at least 17 people and spread to 10 countries. And while it hasn’t yet hit United States, the outbreak has highlighted longstanding gaps in the U.S. system for identifying such threats.

A former U.S. Department of Agriculture official told the Washington Post that the spread of this strain would be a “major disaster” for the U.S. food industry and for public health. “The regulatory framework is a couple of steps behind,” the ex-official said.

Though there are hundreds of strains of E. coli that appear to be harmless, U.S. regulators have for years known about several strains that do cause potentially fatal illnesses. But their focus—as well as that of the food industry—has largely been on just one strain, a version known as e. coli 0157. The New York Times says regulators "largely ignored" six other strains that have also caused outbreaks and deaths. Here’s what the Times reported last year:

Although the federal government and the beef and produce industries have known about the risk posed by these other dangerous bacteria for years, regulators have taken few concrete steps to directly address it or even measure the scope of the problem.

For three years, the United States Department of Agriculture has been considering whether to make it illegal to sell ground beef tainted with the six lesser-known E. coli strains, which would give them the same outlaw status as their more famous cousin. The meat industry has resisted the idea, arguing that it takes other steps to keep E. coli out of the beef supply and that no outbreak involving the rarer strains has been definitively tied to beef.

The problem isn’t just that food producers aren’t required to test for what public health experts call the "big six" E. coli strains. Doctors also rarely check for the strains and only 5 percent of medical laboratories are equipped to test for them, meaning that some sicknesses caused by these six strains likely go undiagnosed.

And now of course there's a seventh strain spreading in Europe—one that scientists have said is “super-toxic." 

In recent years, Congress and the federal agencies have made efforts to update the U.S. food safety system. The Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law this year requires the Food and Drug Administration to write rules that could help prevent produce contamination. USDA has also been doing research on the other six E. coli strains to develop tests for them in beef, but it’s unclear whether those tests will be required, as food safety advocates hope

Also unclear is whether the federal agencies in charge of changing the food safety system will be adequately funded. As the Associated Press and others have noted, Republican proposals to cut the FDA’s budget and the USDA’s inspection budget could cut into efforts to update the system.

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