Anger and disappointment were the emotions Laurie Galler felt last Thursday night when she learned that a federal judge overturned an unprecedented government plan to require cooking and handling instructions on all packages of ground meat.
Galler had championed the regulation because she believed it was a sound, positive way to teach Americans about the contaminant-- E. coli 0157:H7--that killed her 3-year-old daughter last July.
But Judge James R. Nowlin of U.S. District Court in Austin, Tex., ruled that the potential public health threat from the E. coli bacteria is relatively obscure and does not warrant emergency action by the federal government. As a result, he granted a food industry request to delay indefinitely the regulation mandating the directions on ground meat and ground poultry products scheduled to take effect last Friday. Nowlin also said the cost of the regulation would inconvenience small businesses.
"I was outraged when I heard the news about Judge Nowlin's decision," said Galler, 32. "The government had finally taken a positive step for consumers' protection and he knocked it down on a technicality."
This weekend, however, despite the ruling, several Southern California supermarkets had already placed the USDA labels on ground meat packages, or displayed food safety brochures at meat counters, or both. Many plan to keep the labels. For instance, Julie Reynolds, a Vons Companies, Inc., spokeswoman, said the Arcadia-based chain will continue to voluntarily provide labeling and brochures throughout its 352 stores. Most retailers had prepared to comply with the regulation's Oct. 15 start date for stick-on labels and were too far along to be dissuaded by last-minute court developments.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which issued the handling regulation as one of several efforts to reduce food-borne illnesses from meat, has appealed the judge's decision.
"I am extremely disappointed in the decision of the court," said USDA Secretary Mike Espy. "I believe . . . that the safe handling label is fundamental in our effort to prevent consumers, and especially children, from getting ill all across this country due to improper handling and cooking of meat and poultry products."
If USDA's appeal fails, the department is faced with beginning the protracted regulatory process for labels all over again--and then the regulation would take at least seven additional months to become effective.
In the meantime, Galler, who lives on Long Island, N.Y., with her husband, Bob, says she wonders how many more children, or other high-risk individuals, will fall ill with E. coli 0157:H7 if the court decision stands. There are an estimated 6,000 cases of E. coli 0157:H7 annually in this country, but medical officials say the figure could be much higher because patients are not routinely tested for the infection. Those at particular risk for the bacteria are infants, pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems such as cancer or AIDS patients. Once an individual is infected, the bacteria can be transmitted to others.
While the most publicized outbreak of E. coli involved Jack in the Box restaurants on the West Coast, the Gallers' child, Lois Joy, suffered severe diarrhea on June 28 after eating home-made meatballs. The bloody diarrhea, caused by E. coli 0157:H7 present in the ground meat, developed into hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious disease that attacks all the body's vital organs. Lois Joy Galler died July 18 after three extremely painful weeks of hospitalization where she suffered kidney failure, a lung collapse, blindness and a stroke.
The ordeal prompted the Gallers to fund a foundation in their daughter's name dedicated to the study of E. coli 0157:H7 and to seek a cure for its associated infections.
"If I had known the precautions (listed on the proposed USDA label)--such as to only defrost frozen meat in the refrigerator--then my daughter would be here today," Galler said. "If such a label can save one child or one adult then the government has to go forward with this."
The three trade groups that brought suit against USDA contended that safe handling instructions on ground meat would not have prevented January's E. coli outbreak attributed to a fast food chain's undercooked hamburgers. Nowlin, in his 12-page ruling, agreed.
"In the evidence and testimony presented to this court, the most serious food-borne illness outbreaks appear to have resulted from problems at restaurants and fast food outlets," he wrote.
But Galler points out that she purchased contaminated beef from her local supermarket, not a fast-food chain. And some studies indicate that the bacteria is present in about 3% of the ground meat available in supermarkets.