published Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Safeguarding the food chain

Americans tend to forget about the dangers of foodborne illnesses until there's a scare and the media is chock-full of stories and first-person accounts of illnesses related to meat, produce or other foods. That sort of complacency is probably human nature, but it is far better to address the cause of illnesses and their toll before they strike than after the fact. The federal government announced Tuesday that it is taking a step that should help ensure the safety of the meat. It's about time.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that his department will expand the testing of e. coli in meat beginning in March. It's a positive step in safeguarding public health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has tested meat for a common strain of e. coli for nearly two decades. The result has been beneficial in terms of protecting the food chain and the nation's health.

There are other strains of e. coli in meat, though, and currently there is no mandate to test for them. Beginning in March, the government will require tests for six additional pathogens. The new tests are needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those strains sicken more than 100,000 Americans annually.

Initially, the new tests will involve only trimmings used in ground beef. Officials say the tests could expand to other meats. Why delay? Expanded testing serves the public interest.

The announcement did not sit well with the meat industry. Its lobbyists have worked diligently and spent lavishly to beat back the effort to expand e. coli tests. Their arguments are self-serving -- "it's too expensive" -- and misguided -- there are "far more effective ways" to promote food safety. Not so.

The current test for the common strain of e. coli has proved useful. Since its inception, the number of illnesses from that strain has declined. In the same period, illnesses from strains not currently tested have risen. Broader testing should detect more toxins. That, in turn, should prompt recalls and other action to protect the food chain.

People might forget about the dangers that can lurk in what they eat. The government should never do so. Vilsack's announcement indicates it has not.

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