Feds, processors take heat for meat recall

By Mark A. DeSorbo

FRANCONIA, PA—THE 19 MILLION pounds of ConAgra ground beef tainted with E. Coli was only in the books as the largest recall in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) history for a short time.

Just three months later, in mid-October, Pilgrim's Pride (Pittsburgh, TX) initiated a nationwide recall of 27 million pounds of poultry products for listeria monocytogenes contamination from its subsidiary, Wampler Foods, located in this town 25 miles north of Philadelphia.

More than 120 people fell ill, seven people died and three pregnant women had miscarriages or stillbirths in an outbreak that began this summer in Northeastern states and was linked to Wampler's deli-style turkey, “the cause of this outbreak,” according to a press release from U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

USDA inspectors found the strain of bacteria in its initial investigation of the outbreak, while Pilgrim's Pride denied that products made at Wampler caused the outbreak even though the a listeria strain with similar characteristics of the bacteria that caused the outbreak was found on the plant's floor drain.

Ann Koepel, a spokesperson for Pilgrim's Pride, told CleanRooms the company is cooperating with federal regulatory agencies. “We are also in the process of cleaning and sanitizing the facility,” she adds, declining further comment.

The recall sparked outrage among consumer groups, especially when some of the recalled meat made it into school lunch programs throughout the United States several days after the recall was initiated.

“Isn't it amazing that they didn't look for that [in schools] before now?'' said Donna Rosenbaum, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group, Safe Tables Our Priority (Burlington, VT). “I find it unconscionable that they would not jump on that immediately after issuing the recall.”

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based agency that represents nearly 300 consumer advocacy groups, believes there's a distinct possibility that if a testing standard draft developed while the Clinton Administration had been in place, the outbreak and recall may never have happened.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which has also been criticized by members of Congress and activist groups for how it handles recalls, has yet to approve the listeria testing rule. The Bush administration put the proposal on hold in January 2001 and opened it for public comment until May 2001.

Nothing has happened since then, Tucker Foreman says.

“The Bush Administration has stopped new regulations that require companies to test their products for listeria monocytogenes and permits meat and poultry companies to mislabel their products 'ready-to-eat,' assuring that more people will fall victim to this virulent pathogen, which kills 20 percent of those it infects,” she says.

The USDA and the FSIS say stricter inspection standards may not prevent illness outbreaks and recalls.

“I think it's disingenuous to suggest that if we had different regulation, the outbreak and recall could have been avoided,” USDA spokesman Steven Cohen says.

Many meat processors, however, do have systems in place to prevent foodborne illnesses such as reheating products after they have been packaged and sealed or killing pathogens with irradiation, says J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, an industry group.

But a product cannot be made bacteria-free just by simply approving tougher standards, he says, adding, “Clearly, a standard on paper will not solve a problem simply because it exists.”


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