06/11/2010 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time to Overhaul Our 100-Year-Old Food Safety Laws

I have not been in Washington very long, but I've been there long enough to be shocked by how antiquated some of our laws have become. The nation's food safety laws, which haven't been overhauled in a century, are a prime example. With foodborne illnesses on the rise, and almost 5,000 Americans dying every year from tainted food, Congress must act now to reform these long outdated food safety laws.

Believe it or not, in 2010 America, food is still going straight to our kitchens, our school cafeterias and our restaurants without being properly tested. I find that unconscionable. That's why, as the first Senator from New York on the Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years -- and as a concerned mother of two young boys -- I have put food safety at the top of my legislative agenda.

I've been particularly concerned about the lack of regulation when it comes to E. coli in our ground beef. Our families shouldn't be playing Russian roulette every time they eat a hamburger.

While many meat grinders that process ground beef test meat voluntarily both before and after the grinding process, remarkably, there is currently no federal requirement for them to do so. So, last fall, I introduced the E. Coli Eradication Act, which would require plants that produce the cuts and trimmings that go into our ground beef to test the meat before it is ground and then again before all the components are ground up together.

Another important issue I've been working on is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate six strains of E. coli that are proven to cause foodborne illnesses yet are currently unregulated. Current law forces companies to test ground beef for the most common form of E. coli (0157:H7) but the six rarer strains identified by the CDC -- know as non-0157 STECS -- are not listed as contaminants at all. These strains are on the rise and are known to already cause approximately 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year.

Our families deserve better. So, last month, I introduced legislation that would:
  • add the six confirmed toxic strains of E. coli to the list of adulterants (contaminants);
  • require meat companies to test for and discard or cook any batches containing any toxic strains of E. coli;
  • and give the USDA the authority to find and regulate more toxic strains in the future.
In response, despite the overwhelming evidence that these unregulated strains of E. coli are sending more than a thousand people to the hospital each year, the meat industry is pushing back on this legislation. You can take a look at the American Meat Institute's statement here.

Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer, has a wonderful post at his blog taking their statement apart line by line. An excerpt:

If a pathogen that can kill you is in your food -- regardless of the type -- it should be an adulterant. And, as AMI well knows, FDA has jurisdiction over lettuce and already does consider E. coli O145 an adulterant. The beef industry has been dragging its hoofs. [...]

I like to keep things simple. If a pathogen that can kill my kid is in their food, it should be an adulterant. Here is the law:

(m) The term "adulterated" shall apply to any carcass, part thereof, meat or meat food product under one or more of the following circumstances:
(1) if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance, such article shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in or on such article does not ordinarily render it injurious to health; ...
(3) if it consists in whole or in part of any filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or is for any other reason unsound, unhealthful, unwholesome, or otherwise unfit for human food;
(4) if it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health; ...

Hmmm, it is hard to read the above and not think that the words apply to all E. coli (frankly, all pathogens in food).

I know, I am just a lawyer, but don't ya think that when food with animal feces (and a dash of E. coli O157:H7) in it is considered an adulterant, that other animal feces (with dashes of other pathogens) in them, should be considered adulterated too? But, hey, that is just me.

I could not have put it better myself.

I know the meat industry is going to fight my common sense legislation tooth and nail but I pledge to you that I will not give up on this. Not when it comes to the safety of our children and our families. It's just too important.