Taking E. coli conservatism literally

A couple of weeks ago, explaining his efforts to gut federal food-safety safeguards, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) argued that businesses should simply be trusted to sell safe products. The “private sector,” he said, “self-polices,” so we need not worry too much about safeguards to protect the public.

Kingston, chairman of the House subcommittee that wrote the agriculture appropriations bill, may not fully appreciate the consequences of his policymaking. This is literally E. coli conservatism.

At a time of rising concern over pathogens in produce, Congress is moving to eliminate the only national program that regularly screens U.S. fruits and vegetables for the type of E. coli that recently caused a deadly outbreak in Germany.

The House last month approved a bill that would end funding for the 10-year-old Microbiological Data Program, which tests about 15,000 annual samples of vulnerable produce such as sprouts, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cantaloupe and cilantro for pathogens including salmonella and E. coli.

The commercial produce industry — and its lobbyists — convinced Republicans the safeguards are burdensome and duplicative, since there are some other screening efforts outside the Microbiological Data Program.

As Rachel Maddow explained last night, the argument is wrong, and for those of us who eat food, kind of dangerous.

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“You may have followed the story earlier this summer about the really quite scary E. coli outbreak in Europe, mostly in Germany, that got more than 4,000 people sick,” Rachel explained. “This outbreak killed more than 40 people. That outbreak of E. coli was not a typical strain of the bacteria, it was a more rare, more virulent form that was eventually traced to a sprout farm in northern Germany.

“The scary thing about that for Americans is that the Food and Drug Administration here in the U.S. does not regularly screen for that strain of E. coli. The FDA screens for what you might call standard E. coli, the 0157-H-7 strain. But they don’t screen for this other kind that caused all these fatalities in Europe.

“Fortunately, though, even though our FDA doesn’t screen for that strain, there is another U.S. government program that does. It’s called the microbiological data program, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program costs taxpayers less than $5 million a year to scan 15,000 sample of produce, produce that’s susceptible to things like E. coli.

“When they find something dangerous, that usually leads to a product recall. As reported in the Chicago Tribune today, House Republicans have zeroed out funding for this E. coli screening program because — hey, who needs a government that screens for virulent, deadly forms of E. coli anyway? We can do that at home ourselves, right, with our home rare E. coli strain testing kits.

“The E. coli testing program is not dead yet. The Senate still has to make its decision on it. But according to House Republicans, hey, it’s tough times. You just can’t afford it.”

I imagine quite a few folks voted for Republican candidates last year because they were frustrated by the weak economy. I wonder how many of them now realize they got far more than they bargained for.