The fallout from a article published Oct. 2 in the New York Times that detailed lapses in production safety protocols and testing for E. coli O157:H7, resulting in child deaths and at least one case of permanent paralysis, continues to nip at the meat industry. Last week, a half-hour segment of the "Larry King Live" show on CNN was devoted to the question of beef safety, inspired by the article. Within weeks, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) will introduce the E. coli Eradication Act, which, according to the senator, will improve federal meat inspection, recall response and public education about meat safety. The plan was announced on October 14 and has already generated criticism from the industry; a staff member for Gillibrand told MEATPOULTRY.com that the proposed legislation was directly inspired by the Times article.
In a comment e-mailed to MEATPOULTRY.com, the Senator stated: "In America, in 2009, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety. It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. We need to do a better job of catching contaminated food before it ever comes close to a kitchen table. My plan addresses the gaps in the inspection process and improves recalls and public education, so parents have the information to keep their families safe."
Gillibrand is the first senator in 40 years from New York state to sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and while New York is not home to an extensive meatpacking industry, the Hunt’s Point area north of New York City is one of the busiest meat-distribution centers in the U.S. The staff member told MEATPOULTRY.com that the volume of beef passing through Hunt’s Point every day was on the Senator’s mind when she prepared her proposal.
The E. coli Eradication Act calls for improved industry and USDA testing of ground beef for O157, improved testing of other foods, more frequent inspections of imported meat and other foods, mandatory recall authority for the Food and Drug Administration (no mention is made in the proposal of changing the recall authority for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which regulates still-voluntary meat and poultry recalls), and improved public education. That component would allow the FDA to share trade secrets, and commercial or financial information, and its list of registered facilities with other federal, state, local and foreign agencies - provided those agencies can assure confidentially of the information.
Responding to the proposed legislation, J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said that if O157 adulteration of meat could be controlled by an act passed by Congress, "we would have insisted that such legislation be enacted years ago." He added: "Although we appreciate the intent of Senator Gillibrand’s recently announced bill, it is certainly not a food safety silver bullet and would actually duplicate the millions of tests currently being conducted by the meat industry."
Gillibrand replied that the industry is "choosing to ignore [its] own best practices. Leading processors in the industry, like Costco, have already determined that they cannot rely on suppliers alone to test the meat. Costco says that testing the meat they receive from slaughterhouses is ‘incumbent upon' them, and I agree. The USDA has established proper sampling and testing methods that help ensure safer products. The meat industry would do better by their consumers if they chose to adopt their own best practices and the guidelines from the USDA. However, in the absence of corporate responsibility, Congress should take action."
In a letter to the New York Times following publication of the Oct. 2 E. coli story, Boyle commented: "The meat industry has a single-mindedness when it comes to E. coli O157:H7 -- we want to eliminate it. But like other facts of nature -- from floods to the flu -- even when there is a will, there may not always be a way to do it 100 percent of the time."