Legislation pushes mandatory recall

by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – A PBS documentary characterizing the United States' food safety system as broken spawned new federal legislation that gives the Secretary of Agriculture mandatory recall authority.

“The Trouble With Chicken” focuses on high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks associated with poultry products, including the Foster Farms Salmonella Heidelburg case and an outbreak associated with Cargill poultry products. Foster Farms did not participate in the documentary; Mike Robach, vice president of Corporate Food Safety and Regulatory Affairs at Cargill, appeared in the program.

After PBS aired the documentary, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Meat and Poultry Recall Notification Act which gives USDA mandatory recall authority; encourages retailers to use shopper reward cards to track customers who may have bought recalled products; and creates a one-page Recall Summary Notice to be displayed at point of sale.

“Our food safety system is failing to protect Americans, leaving thousands of people hospitalized every year with preventable illnesses,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “Poultry and meat known to be contaminated should never end up in market fridges and freezers or our kitchens. The USDA must have the authority to recall products that test positive for contaminants, and consumers need to know when food has been recalled.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who appeared in the documentary, introduced the Pathogen Reduction and Testing Reform Act which would require USDA to recall meat, poultry or egg products that are contaminated with pathogens that cause serious illness or death and that are resistant to two or more antibiotics used in human medicine.

The documentary was critical of the USDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Sporadic and unreliable testing, too much focus on visual defects and testing whole poultry carcasses instead of pieces were among the claims made in the program.

However, the documentary did not mention new performance standards that will require poultry processors to improve its control of pathogens on poultry parts. The standards, introduced in January, would apply to chicken and turkey parts, and ground turkey and chicken. The standards also require regulatory testing at processing points that are closer to the final product. The agency estimates the new standards will prevent 50,000 illnesses per year.

Also, USDA has said its “Poultry Inspection Modernization Rule” will reduce the risk of foodborne illness by allowing FSIS personnel to focus on testing and other activities related to foodborne illness prevention. In conjunction with that rule, the agency implemented new pathogen control and testing requirements on all poultry facilities.

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