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E. coli outbreaks focus attention on food-safety rules

by Misti Crane, Columbus Dispatch

For consumers, food safety can seem simple. They want to know that their burgers are safe and that they can eat their spinach salad without spending days in agony, close to a bathroom.

But food safety is a complex issue and one that is prompting increased discussion, debate and proposals on the part of advocates, farmers, grocers, government officials and others.

The E. coli outbreak in Ohio, Michigan and New York has once again drawn attention to the safety of the nation's food and is prompting some to point to deficiencies they say contribute to an unprecedented amount of food-borne illness in the country.

Last week, in a related development, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced that it is requiring its beef suppliers to run additional tests - beyond those required by the federal government - that will reveal contaminants including non-0157 forms of E. coli. E. coli 0157 is the type most commonly implicated in outbreaks, and the one for which testing is required.

The outbreak here has not yet been linked to a specific food product, but it has been blamed on E. coli 0145. Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in Columbus this week and are assisting with a study to try to pinpoint the culprit. The Food and Drug Administration is investigating, but officials there wouldn't say more about any suspect products.

As of yesterday, Columbus Public Health knew of seven confirmed cases in the outbreak and six cases considered suspect. Sixty cases in three states are now part of the investigation, said spokesman Jose Rodriguez.

Last year, President Barack Obama pledged to get tough on food safety, pointing out that outbreaks from contaminated foods have more than tripled in the past two decades, to about 350 a year. In the past two years, Columbus Public Health has handled 11 known food-borne illness outbreaks that sickened at least 115 people.

The FDA, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is working on food-safety rules expected to be officially proposed this year.

In March, farmers and others gathered at Ohio State University for one of six discussions organized by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. Federal officials have been attending the meetings.

Farmers have many concerns, chief among them that rules will be one-size-fits-all and strain the smaller producers.

Lisa Schacht, who attended the meeting, runs a family farm in Canal Winchester. She said a better approach here would be Ohio-specific safety rules. Farms in California are different from farms here and what might seem reasonable for large producers could mean the end of business for a small family farm, said Schacht, vice president of the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association.

Any federal rules should be carefully written so they aren't applied universally regardless of differences in farms, whether it is the size of the business or the type of produce they grow, she said.

And they should be practical, she said. If a flood brings animal waste onto her property, it would be reasonable to require testing. But in the absence of a threat, daily or weekly testing shouldn't be required, she said.

Furthermore, a lot of what happens in terms of food contamination happens after it leaves the farm, Schacht said.

Farmers throughout the state are expressing similar concerns about federal rules, said Ohio Agriculture Director Robert Boggs. "The industry understands they have a lot at stake here."

Large supermarket chains are also increasingly setting their own standards for farms, which is changing business as well, he said.

One positive side of the public's awareness of food safety is "that it really makes local food products more attractive," Boggs said.

On the meat-safety side of things, the USDA is considering requests that it increase safety - particularly of ground beef - by requiring consumer protection against more than one type of E. coli. As it is now, department regulations consider E. coli 0157 to be a contaminant.

Seattle lawyer and food-safety advocate Bill Marler has been leading the charge to include other forms of E. coli that also have the power to sicken and, in some cases, kill.

Marler has been paying for tests of ground beef samples in six states (he won't say which ones) and after 4,700 tests, has found non-0157 forms of E. coli in about 2 percent of the samples, he said. He's testing 300 more before generating a more-detailed report on his findings.

"If you look at that from a broad perspective, it's a big deal. It's a huge deal, and it may account for a lot of illness that nobody's tracking."

Marler said he understands the pressure on industry as government looks at increasing regulations. Consumers might have to be willing to give a little to make food safer, too, he said.

"A nickel more a pound for hamburger would probably solve this problem," he said.

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