There was a glimpse at a right way, and a quixotic example of another way to bring this country safer food in the week just past. The right way was a deal the warehouse store giant Costco made with Tyson over testing beef trimmings before they are turned into ground beef patties.

But Seattle attorney Bill Marler, a veteran litigator of damage suits over foodborne illness incidents, had some of the trappings of the Spanish dreamer and idealist Don Quixote as he traveled to Washington, D.C., to try and pry a food safety reform bill, HR 2749, out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

It's reported that part of Marler's Capitol Hill visit included passing out T-shirts that said, "Put a Trial Lawyer Out of Business: Pass Meaningful Food Safety Legislation Before Thanksgiving."

HR 2749, which came out of the House in July with the backing of President Barack Obama and a bit of horse-trading to make mandatory federal inspection of farm crops a non-issue for some smaller operations, is controversial at best.

It's main thrust is to group all food inspection responsibilities -- growing, handling and processing -- with the Food and Drug Administration, phasing out Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service. Even in the revised form that passed the House 283-142, many agriculture groups find a lot to fault in the bill.

If you can read between the lines, the Senate committee that got the bill in early August isn't taking up the issue because there's a higher priority, raised in SB 501. It's an attempt to reform prescription drug regulation so there will be more competition -- a part of the larger health care debate dominating Congress this fall.

In short, free T-shirts or not, it could be a long time before Congress strips USDA of its inspection responsibility.

Which is why we applaud Costco for putting added testing for E. coli O157:H7 into its contract with Tyson. That's the marketplace at work, tightening up to keep a known cause of a sometimes fatal foodborne illness from reaching consumers.

We saw a similar effort a couple of years ago when California leafy vegetable handlers set their own standards and created a way to assure the public that growers and handlers care about food safety.

Is the combination of marketplace pressure and current regulations doing the job? It's certainly making progress. One decade ago, in 1999, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were 76 million individual cases of foodborne illness every year. The most recent estimate, in 2008, reduces the estimated incidence rate to 70 million cases, a reduction of 8.5 percent.

There's more cause to cheer last week's news, because it included the announcement of an agreement between USDA and FDA to cooperate in another round of updating food safety administrative rules. Even without congressional action, the agencies are moving forward, as are agricultural producers and handlers, to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness even more.


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