Sunday, June 5, 2011

E. Coli Odds & Regulation

Your odds of being poisoned by food contaminated with one of the Big Six E. Coli strains is 1 in 2,700 per year.  A not so nice fact since food poisoning is hell.

I speak from recent experience, though it is not certain that my food poisoning case was caused by E. coli.  But certainly Europe is now riven with fear from a massive outbreak of a virulent, new strain of E. coli bacteria contaminating food.

According to Jeff Benedict, writing in today's NYT, the Government Accountability Office estimates that 6 new strains of E. coli bacteria caused 113,000 illnesses in 2009.

That would be put your odds of being made ill by one of the Big Six strains of E. Coli at about 1 in 2,700 per year.

Amazingly until 1993 meat was not inspected at all for E. coli contamination.  Inspection and testing began only after the infamous Jack in the Box food poisoning disaster that killed 4 and sickened hundreds.

Today protections of our food supply from pathogens have advanced a bit but remain full of gaping holes.  For example, just one per cent of food imported is inspected at all.

Overcoming major opposition from conservatives, the Congress did pass in 2010 the Food Safety Modernization Act that would boost protections against E. coli and other pathogens.

But implementing the Act has fallen prey to budget cutting with no money appropriated.  Given the stakes as well as my own experience that put me in the emergency room of the Hershey Medical Center, failing to fund food inspections and regulatory systems is worse than penny wise and pound foolish.  It is playing with life and death.

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