While Congress is passing the Food Safety Enhancement Act to improve the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate and inspect food industry it has authority over, including seafood, produce and other food products, meat and poultry trade associations are concerned about aspects of the bill that could affect them in the future. The FDA legislation sets many precedents possibly affecting USDA and the meat and poultry industry in the future.

“If these precedents pass in the FDA bill, they would surely be added to any USDA food-safety legislation down the road,” says the National Turkey Federation’s spokesman, Joel Brandenberger. “They would include mandatory recall of poultry and meat products, instead of the current voluntary system, which works very well,” he says. “USDA always gets a company to recall its products when it wants one. Then there are civil penalties. We have inspectors in our plants continuously, so why would these penalties be needed? Civil penalties would not improve food safety, but merely be a moneymaking scheme for the government,” Brandenberger says.

The NPPC’s Warner says a followup bill to FDA food safety could be a Food Safety and Inspection Service reform bill incorporating many of these provisions opposed by industry.

A major food safety focus for the American Meat Institute is funding solutions-based research to make food products safer, including raw meat and poultry products and ready-toeat meat and poultry products, AMI President Patrick Boyle says. “The Institute has worked very hard to bring new food-safety technologies on line to further enhance the safety of meat products, but the approval process is slow,” he says. One oftencited example is the use of irradiation on meat-carcass surfaces. AMI petitioned USDA five years ago to approve the use of such irradiation to reduce or eliminate pathogens on carcasses, but so far there has been no approval. “Although the delays in the decisionmaking process have been frustrating, AMI will remain vigilant in its effort to get this food-safety tool approved and implemented,” he says.

“In the poultry industry, this year USDA will reset the Salmonella standard,” predicts Richard Lobb, the National Chicken Council’s spokesman, and he suspects the amount of Salmonella tolerated on raw meat will be lowered. He also thinks the agency will set up a pathogen program for Campylobacter, “which is even more pervasive than Salmonella,” Lobb points out. “The agency may require plants to achieve reductions
in Campylobacter. In any case, both areas will be affected by USDA rulemaking this year.”

National Meat Association executives say it is critical that an undersecretary for Food Safety must be finally named. NMA’s spokesman Jeremy Russell says this appointment is “a must” if there is going to be more movement and efforts made for greater food safety by industry, government and consumers. “In order to advance food safety and get all of the parties involved, there needs to be someone with political power leading the charge and getting everyone to work together. That person is the undersecretary for Food Safety. The administration is likely coming to a decision on the undersecretary this year,” he says.
A key issue to the long-term viability of the industry as a whole, Boyle believes, is sustainability. “The institute is committed to push for the adoption of industry-wide sustainable practices,” Boyle says.

Another major issue for all of the trade associations is immigration reform. Boyle says this year AMI will push for changes in immigration policies including strong border enforcement, full funding and mandatory use of E-Verify, more legal avenues for work visas and a pathway to citizenship for immigrant workers already here.

Ethanol issues continue

And then there’s ethanol – and corn. All sectors of the meat and poultry industry continue to be concerned about the increasing price of corn to feed their animals, thanks to U.S. government policy protecting ethanol producers, encouraging them to produce more ethanol to be added to gasoline and thus taking more corn out of the hands of agriculture. The petition to raise the legal limit of how much ethanol can be added to gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent is a major concern this year, says the National Chicken Council’s Lobb. He says the limit could be raised by Congress by June of this year. Lobb and many in the poultry industry don’t believe it is possible to reach the ethanol targets. “How much more corn can they grow?” he asks.

Current corn prices are nearly double their historical average. That will leave corn stalks, cobs or wood chips to make up the ethanol, none of which work very well. But the pressure is being placed on Congress to increase the amount of corn-based ethanol in the fuel supply. An August 2009 Government Accountability Office report notes ethanol production more than doubled feed costs for livestock producers in the U.S. between 2006 and 2008.

For the pork producers, the federal school lunch and breakfast programs are extremely important government programs. “Early on this year, Congress has to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which includes those programs . The reauthorization must be done by March,” NPPC’s Warner says.

Other legislative and regulatory issues up for discussion by industry, government and consumers this year include the issuance of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines by the U.S. government and the need to include meat and poultry protein as part of a balanced diet; environmental issues, like climate change legislation, which could affect the meat and poultry industry; card check legislation, which would make it easier for unions to organize workers in non-union companies; animal welfare issues; a shift by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) into a stronger enforcement mode; and bills in the House and Senate to ban the use of antibiotics, drugs used in livestock and poultry to prevent and control animal disease. Revisionists in Congress want the drugs used only to treat animal disease. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is looking at a federal takeover of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. And there are also continuing concerns in Congress about meat and food industry concentration, and market structure issues in the industry. •

Bernard Shire, is M&P’s Washington correspondent based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates.