Sen. Gillibrand says Congress must act on food safety

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON — After the American Meat Institute said last week the E. coli Eradication Act authored by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would only "duplicate" testing currently being done by the industry, Senator Gillibrand replied "in the absence of corporate responsibility, Congress must act."

"The meat industry makes some valuable points about the need to handle and cook ground beef carefully, but they are choosing to ignore their own best practices," she said. "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."

U.S.D.A. has established proper sampling and testing methods that help ensure safer products, she said. "The meat industry would do better by their consumers if they chose to adopt their own best practices and the guidelines from the U.S.D.A.," she added. "However, in the absence of corporate responsibility, Congress should take action."

Last week, Senator Gillibrand, the first New York senator to sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, announced what she termed "a comprehensive plan" to overhaul the nation's food-safety laws by improving inspection, recall response and public education. A cornerstone of Senator Gillibrand's plan is new legislation to mandate E. coli inspections of ground beef.

During a 2009 industry-wide sampling of all ground beef produced, the U.S.D.A. Food Safety and Inspection Service found that nearly one in every 300 samples of ground beef was contaminated with E. coli, she said. Ground beef is especially vulnerable to E. coli because its source material is not from a single cut of meat, rather, from a compilation of trimmings from many parts, including fat that lies near the surface of possibly contaminated hide, she added.

While some grinders that process ground beef voluntarily test the meat before and after grinding, there is currently no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for E. coli, Sen. Gillibrand pointed out.

As a result, she is authoring the E. Coli Eradication Act — new legislation that would require all plants that process ground beef to test their products regularly before it is ground and again before it is combined with other beef or ingredients, such as spices, and packaged. If ground beef is found to be contaminated, the bill requires the company to properly dispose of the contaminated batch or to cook the meat to a temperature that destroys the E. coli.

Senator Gillibrand's legislation will include penalties for companies that fail to implement testing mechanisms at their facilities.

When asked if A.M.I. had a response to Ms. Gillibrand’s latest comments regarding the meat industry, Janet Riley, A.M.I. senior vice-president public affairs and member services, told MEATPOULTRY.com: "We will let our original comments about what testing can and cannot accomplish stand. We are confident in what we said originally." (To read these comments, read Eliminating E. coli in ground beef 'not that easy')

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