Scanning the Hill for signs

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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The recent flurry of food-safety activity in Washington, D.C., with new comprehensive legislative proposals for regulatory reform arriving by the week, it seems, have almost exclusively focused on the Food and Drug Administration, not on U.S.D.A., which regulates meat and poultry production. Even so, industry organizations are keeping a wary eye on the proposals and debates.

The National Meat Association, for example, hasn’t taken an official position on the U.S. Food Safety Enhancement Act, which was passed this week by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, "because there’s a lot of stuff in the bill that we already have with U.S.D.A.," according to NMA spokesman Jeremy Russell. "We may end up taking a position, however."

But the discussions and debate over the Food Safety Enhancement Act were watched closely by NMA. "Just from the tenor of the debate, I’m almost certain that something will be coming down the line for U.S.D.A.," said Russell. He noted that proposals made several months ago to combine F.D.A.’s and U.S.D.A.’s separate authorities for food inspection into one "super inspection" agency are still very much alive on Capital Hill.

The proposal passed by the committee this week would increase F.D.A.’s food safety-related authority in the wake of recent pathogen-related recalls of leafy greens and uncooked nuts and the resulting foodborne illnesses attributable to these F.D.A.-regulated products. But some of the products that would fall under the purview of the Act are used as ingredients in processed meat and poultry, causing concerns in the meat and poultry industry that F.D.A. in addition to U.S.D.A. will have an inspection presence in plants if the proposal becomes law. There may also be some conflict in relevant F.D.A. and U.S.D.A. regulations for these products. At the same time, the American Meat Institute successfully lobbied to have language addressing low-oxygen modified atmosphere packaging removed from the Act, and AMI called rewrites of provisions concerning country-of-origin labeling and traceability "improvements."

The food-safety debate in Washington comes at a time when a new survey conducted by IBM shows that less than 20 percent of U.S. consumers trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy for themselves and their families. The survey of 1,000 consumers in the 10 largest U.S. cities also shows that 60 percent of consumers are concerned about the safety of food they purchase.

IBM said the lack of confidence is due to what it called "the debilitating impact of recalls." The survey found that 83 percent of respondents were able to name a food product that had been recalled in the past two years due to contamination or other safety concerns. If the meat and poultry can take any heart at all in the survey’s findings, it is that nearly half of survey respondents — 46 percent — named peanut butter, not ground beef or luncheon meats or other meat and poultry products, as the most recognizable recall. Spinach came in a distant second, with 15 percent awareness.

According to IBM, "Consumers are proving to be extra cautious in purchasing food products after a recall. 49 percent of the respondents would be less likely to purchase a food product again if it was recalled due to contamination. 63 percent of respondents confirmed they would not buy the food until the source of contamination had been found and addressed. Meanwhile, eight percent of respondents said they would never purchase the food again, even after the source of contamination was found and addressed.

"These findings underscore how the rise in recalls and contamination has significantly eroded consumer confidence in food and product safety, as well as with the companies that manufacture and distribute these products."

But N.M.A.’s Russell isn’t expecting any big legislative moves to be made on U.S.D.A. meat and poultry inspection soon. After the fanfare of a White House announcement earlier this year, the President’s Food Safety Working Group has held only a single listening session and has not made any recommendations to date. "Part of the problem there is that there’s still no U.S.D.A. Undersecretary for Food Safety," said Russell. "The Committee can’t really do anything without that position being filled, and nothing’s likely to happen on the Hill, either, until it’s filled. Not only that, but Secretary Vilsack is focused on so many other things right now — biofuels, carbon offsets, the budget. Whatever’s going to happen with food safety at the Department, I don’t think it’s going to be soon."

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