WASHINGTON (FNS) -- A panel of medical experts meeting in Washington recommended that beef-handling safety measures be stepped up "all along the food chain," from farms to supermarkets to consumers' kitchens. The group, a committee brought together by the American Gastroenterological Association Foundation, is trying to prevent the spread of the bacterium E. coli 0157:H7, which was linked to four deaths in the Pacific Northwest last year, and sickens at least 20,000 Americans each year, according to AGAF. There is no known treatment for the infection. AGAF sponsored the forum because "the government is just not doing a good job" combating this type of infection, said foundation spokesman Aaron Kwittken. The committee of 14 medical experts recommended that supermarket employees undergo mandatory training in beef handling, that federal inspections of beef be more intensive and scientific, and that irradiated beef be made available to consumers. Ground beef is the most common source of E. coli 0157:H7 infection because the organisms, which usually are found on the surface of a cut of meat, are plowed into the middle of a hamburger where heat may not penetrate during cooking. Although a mandatory training rule would certainly impose additional costs on supermarkets, it makes sense in light of supermarkets' increasing role in food preparation, said John Farquhar, vice president of scientific and technical services at the Food Marketing Institute here, which helped sponsor the committee meeting. "I look at it from the standpoint that supermarkets have
expanded to the point now where a lot of them have restaurants, they do catering, they have expanded delis with a lot of food preparation," Farquhar said. "A lot of these products are potentially hazardous, and to minimize the risk and the liability, they [employees] need to have the training." This is particularly true because states are cutting their food inspection budgets while the food retail industry is growing, he said.
Farquhar noted that the food industry and the government already have drawn up several sets of guidelines for handling beef and other perishables, such as the Food and Drug Administration's 1993 Food Code, but none of them impose a nationwide, mandatory standard.
On the issue of irradiation, Farquhar said supermarkets are "not opposed" to the practice as long as consumers are able to choose between treated and nontreated meat.
The Food and Drug Administration already has approved irradiation to kill bacteria in chicken and some pork cuts, as well as many nonmeat items, said FDA spokesman Brad Stone. While the agency has not made a decision on beef irradiation, "we're anxious to see [a petition] filed and we'll do whatever we can to give it the quickest possible review," Stone said. A petition is currently being prepared and should be formally submitted soon, he added. FDA's sister agency, the U.S. Agriculture Department, began lobbying for approval of beef irradiation in March, when Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala asking her to consider approving beef irradiation. FDA comes under Shalala's purview. Dr. Martin Brotman, chairman of the panel, acknowledged that irradiation would not render beef completely safe because it could come into contact with bacteria after it has been irradiated. The panel's recommendations, when taken together, would only reduce the risk of eating beef, not completely eliminate it, he said. The committee criticized current federal beef inspection methods as woefully inadequate. Despite promises by Espy to improve the meat inspection system, "the 'see, touch, smell' system cannot reduce microbial organisms because you cannot see them," Brotman said. "That method can only pick up abscesses, flukes and other major defects."
Brotman said the government needs to use microscopes and other scientific instruments to detect the presence of E. coli 0157:H7. The committee's other recommendations include:
More federal funding for research, including the possible development of a vaccine and studies of barnyard and slaughtering practices.
Educating children in public schools about beef safety.
Other educational programs directed at consumers and doctors, who sometimes do not test for E. coli 0157:H7.