THEIR OPINION: Congress poised to make reckless retreat on food safetyThe United States needs to act quickly before an outbreak of the E.coli magnitude claims lives here and exacts a massive economic toll, according to the Star Tribune editorial. "Unfortunately," it states, "the U.S. Congress is poised to make a reckless retreat on the food safety front by not funding the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act, which brings America's horse-and-buggy food safety laws into the age of supermarkets, fast food and globally grown produce."
By: Star Tribune Editorial Board, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) / MCT
First, it was cucumbers from Spain. Then tainted sprouts.
On Monday came word that the floundering German investigation of a European E. coli outbreak was backtracking again. Initial testing didn't bear out that sprouts from a farm in northern Germany were the "most convincing" source of what is the deadliest outbreak on record.
So far, 22 people have died, and more deaths are likely, with 600 people in intensive care. More than 2,000 have been hospitalized since illnesses were first reported in May.
Yet authorities don't appear any closer to figuring out which contaminated food carried this killer bacteria -- a fecal-borne pathogen that can be found on or in a variety of foods.
The illnesses and the inability to pinpoint the cause are a public health disaster. The United States needs to act quickly before an outbreak of this magnitude claims lives here and exacts a massive economic toll.
Confusion reigns, but what is clear from the European mess is how important it is to have strong food safety standards and teams of scientists with the expertise to trace an outbreak in hours or days -- not weeks or months.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress is poised to make a reckless retreat on the food safety front by not funding the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act, which brings America's horse-and-buggy food safety laws into the age of supermarkets, fast food and globally grown produce.
And, in Minnesota, the looming state government shutdown threatens two agencies that together are one of the world's premier disease investigative teams -- the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Their collaboration in 2008 solved a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,200 people and was wrongfully blamed by American authorities on tomatoes.
Thoughtlessly starving either state agency not only puts Minnesota at risk but jeopardizes a nation depending on their ability to quickly implicate killer bugs. Legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton must safeguard the state's scientific expertise against furloughs or dangerous permanent cuts.
The 2008 salmonella outbreak, and a 2009 peanut butter recall, helped spur passage of the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act. Those outbreaks revealed disturbing holes in the American food safety system -- the ability to quickly trace back foods and a lack of clarity about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) authority.
The new food safety law put a welcome emphasis on prevention. It gives the FDA authority to order recalls of contaminated products and strengthens the agency's oversight of imported foods.
Key components also require annual inspections for high-risk facilities. Processors also must identify and fix potential contamination points.
Funding to implement the reforms has fallen victim to the congressional stalemate over taxes and spending. Laughable conspiracy theories that the law would lead to a government takeover of the American food supply has also led to political footdragging.
To make matters worse, politicians' unwillingness to confront entitlement spending likely means deep cuts to nondefense discretionary spending. That could decimate the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a global public health resource.
The European outbreak revealed that additional E. coli strains now threaten consumers. Pathogens like the killer bacteria found in Germany are quickly evolving. Regulatory agencies need to step up their game to stay ahead. Europe was caught flat-footed.
The United States should take heed and press forward with reforms.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.