U.S. lawmakers vowed on Monday to make food safety a top priority when the new Democratic-led Congress convenes in January following a recent series of high-profile illnesses caused by the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria.
"We've just got to go in and have, really, a top to bottom look at what is going on," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, said in an interview. The food safety system "appears to have broken down when you have these outbreaks almost every single week," she added.
DeLauro, who will be in charge of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee starting in January, said her first hearing will focus on food safety.
A key part of reform could focus on legislation first introduced in 1999 by DeLauro and Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, that would place the food safety divisions of the Agriculture Department, Food & Drug Administration and others under one umbrella.
The most recent outbreak, which has sickened nearly 60 people, was traced back to E. coli-contaminated green onions used by fast-food chain Taco Bell.
This case follows a similar E. coli scare in September in which three people died and more than 200 became infected after eating farmed spinach from California. And in November, 183 people in the United States and Canada became sick after eating restaurant tomatoes that had another bacteria, Salmonella.
In the California spinach case, it took investigators close to three weeks to determine where the food came from and how it became contaminated.
"This is a game of Russian roulette. Unless you get very lucky there is the potential of more people getting sick," said Joe Shoemaker, a Durbin spokesman. "Sometimes it takes a situation like this to heighten public awareness."
The food industry has supported changes in oversight to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe.
Susan Stout, vice president of federal affairs with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry trade group, said more staffing, coordination between agencies and additional inspection of imported foods are possible solutions. But she stopped short of advocating that oversight be consolidated to one agency.
"I just hope Congress doesn't think building a single federal agency (to oversee food safety) is the answer," said Stout.
Despite the recent cases, USDA has said foodborne diseases have been declining with E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella down between 9 and 32 percent since 1998.
Food poisoning is common in the United States with 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses reported annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.