Harkin offers bill to restore USDA power to enforce Salmonella standard

Mar 15, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, yesterday introduced a bill to restore the US Department of Agriculture's powerto shut down meatpacking plants whose products exceed the federal Salmonella standard.

Harkin's bill would override a federal appeals court rulingin December 2001 that the Salmonella performance standard is illegal. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Salmonella in a Texas meatpacker's products was not a result ofunsanitary conditions in the plant, because it was present when the meatarrived at the plant. The ruling said that the Federal Meat Inspection Actcan't be used to regulate the condition of meat coming into the plant.

Several consumers, labor, and other groups rallied in supportof the bill, but a meat industry group said Congress has rejected similarlegislation twice before. Meanwhile, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA)official told a House subcommittee that the department will continue to testfor Salmonella and can still shut downmeat plants that have inadequate food safety systems.

The proposed Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction Act of 2002"would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to enforcestandards for reducing pathogens on meat and poultry products after thatauthority was struck down by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Supreme BeefInc. v. Glickman," states a news release from Harkin's office. A companionbill was introduced in the House by Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and RosaDeLauro, D-Conn., Harkin said.

"If the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is right, and theFederal Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts do not allow for pathogen standards,then the Bush administration should step up and say the Acts need to berewritten," Harkin said. "We must make it clear, once and for all,that USDA has the authority to set and enforce standards to reducepathogens." He said he had asked Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman tosupport the bill and was waiting for her response.

Advocacy groups that rallied at USDA headquarters inWashington yesterday urged the Bush administration to support Harkin's bill,among other food safety measures. Caroline Smith de Waal, food safety directorfor the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washingtonnonprofit group that works on food safety and quality issues, said that lack ofenforcement of the Salmonella standardis leading to cases of salmonellosis.

In a statement released by CSPI, de Waal described the caseof Virginia Griggs, a 78-year-old Wisconsin woman who was hospitalized with thedisease in January after eating a restaurant hamburger. "There will bemany more such cases of food poisoning from Salmonella." De Waalpredicted. "This is because the Bush administration is not enforcing U.S.Department of Agriculture's standards for Salmonella."

CSPI and allied groups also urged the USDA to disclose Salmonella test results for individual meatpacking plants, torequire the producers of ready-to-eat meats to test their plants and productsfor Listeria monocytogenes, andto require beef plants to test carcasses for Escherichia coli O157:H7.

Meanwhile, in testimony before a House committee yesterday,USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano reiterated the USDA's positionthat it will continue to use Salmonellatesting to assess food safety in meat plants and can still act against unsafeplants, according to a USDA news release. After the court ruling in December,Veneman had said the department would continue to test for Salmonella and that violations of the standard would triggerinspections of meatpackers' food safety systems. The USDA can shut down plantsthat fail to fix safety problems found in such inspections, she said.Yesterday's USDA statement did not mention Harkin's bill.

On the industry side, Patrick J. Boyle, president of theAmerican Meat Institute (AMI), attacked Harkin's bill and defended the USDA'scurrent approach. "Sen. Harkin's bill is a political effort to legislatewhat science and the judicial system do not support and what Congress hasrejected twice before," Boyle stated in a report on the AMI Web site.

"Using the test to deem a plant unsanitary is likeusing SAT scores alone to evaluate a student's future potential," Boylesaid. "The information needs to be used in a larger context, and that isprecisely how USDA is now using the Salmonella performance standard."

AMI said Congress should await forthcoming recommendationson microbiological standards from the National Academy of Sciences and theUSDA's National Advisory Committee on Microbioligcal Criteria for Food.

In yesterday's hearing before the House AgricultureAppropriations Subcommittee, Murano said the Bush administration has proposedrecord spending for USDA food safety programs and has strengthened inspectionsystems, according to the USDA release. For fiscal 2003, the administration isrequesting $905 million to fund 7,600 inspectors, veterinarians, and otherpersonnel to ensure the safety of meat and poultry, Murano said.

She also said the USDA will host nine public symposiums thisyear on pathogen reduction and microbial testing, including a 2-day meeting inMay.

See also:

USDA news release describing Murano testimony

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