Tackling E.coli – legislation or self-regulation?

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Agriculture

Everybody wants food to be safe - but the recent slugging match over how best to protect US consumers from E.coli-tainted meat highlights whether legislation or self-regulation is the answer to mending the country's flawed safety system.

In the blue corner, there is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who pulled no punches after unveiling a bill to introduce mandatory testing of beef for E.coli. The New York politician said legislation was the best way to plug the gaps in a colander-like inspection system that sees US companies recall E.coli-tainted meat on a depressingly regular basis.

In the red corner, the American Meat Institute (AMI) which, armed with a stinging jab, countered that if legislation was the best way to solve the problem, it would have championed such a move long ago. It’s not that simple, said AMI president J. Patrick Boyle, with a neat display of footwork.

Testing was no magic bullet and that consumer education on meat handling and preparation, not more legislation, was the answer, he said. A compelling point, said Gillibrand but one leaving the impression that by criticising the public’s hygiene practices, the industry was indulging in some hand-washing of its own in the responsibility stakes.

And on it went. In the meantime – what has actually be achieved by any of this in terms of protecting US consumers from infected produce? Not much.

Lessons from BSE?

Central to the E.coli issue is whether legislation or self-regulation is the way to fix the defective system. Looking across the Atlantic, the lessons learnt in Europe over the BSE crisis in the 1990’s come down strongly on the side of legislation. A meat industry left to regulate itself is widely accepted to have triggered the catastrophe that led to an overhaul of the food system in the region into what is seen by many as the world’s safest.

However, calls for the US to look to Europe have met with limited success due in part to America’s belief in ‘smaller government’ and the ongoing debate on the extent to which politicians should infringe on personal and corporate freedoms.

A call by the AMI last week for the USDA to force meat suppliers not to release produce to the market until after they had received the results of tests for E.coli and Listeria highlights a number of issues on the apparent laissez-faire nature of the US food safety regime and a contradiction in trade claims that industry can regulate itself.

Self-regulation?

Firstly, it may seem strange to many that meat can be made available to the public before companies know if it’s safe or not. Why gamble on sending tainted meat to market only to be forced later to issue a recall that may or may not catch the product before it makes it way onto US dinner tables?

The fact that 76 million people in the US fall victim to all food-borne illness annually, with an estimated 325,000 hospitalised and 5,000 deaths confirms that not all is well with the system. Nobody is suggesting that infected meat is responsible for all of these incidents but it clearly contributes to them.

Secondly, the AMI said firms and not government should retain control of such meat while awaiting federal agency feedback. It made this call for industry self-regulation while admitting that the reason why a law was necessary was because some meat suppliers were ignoring AMI guidelines not to release meat onto the market prior to getting test results.

Either the industry can regulate itself or it cannot, critics would say.

But this is not to vilify the meat industry which has made real strides in beefing up its safety practices in recent years. Companies want to provide safe products and know only those that do so will survive. There has to be a role for self regulation as Government money is tight and federal inspectors can’t be everywhere.

Few would challenge the need for an overhaul of US food safety and the broadly bi-partisan backing of the Bill S 510 as it starts it passage through the Senate is testament to that. But when playing the blame game overshadows constructive debate maybe it’s time to take the gloves off, sit around a table to work together to find the best solution for what we all want.

Related topics: Regulation & Safety

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