SPECIAL REPORT: Industry reflects on USDA under Bush

KANSAS CITY, MO. – As President-elect Barack Obama and his administration take over from the Bush administration today, several industry associations reflected on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s contributions during eight years under George W. Bush.

"We had three Secretaries of Agriculture during the Bush administration. [Anne] Veneman will likely be remembered for her response to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which was then and is still incredibly damaging to the industry despite the fact that the enhanced testing protocol she initiated eventually exonerated the U.S. cattle herd," said Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations, National Meat Association.

[Mike] Johanns, will be remembered as someone who kept things balanced and calm during very difficult times, but was unable to make the National Animal Identification System a reality, he added. "And, of course, [Ed] Schafer had only been sworn in when he was confronted with an animal- abuse video that under his watch led to the largest meat recall in history," Mr. Russell said.

"It may be too soon to say how best to judge the entirety of the last eight years, but there's no question that these three people oversaw one of the most tumultuous periods in modern meat history," he concluded.

Jay Wenther, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, said overall the Bush administration did a good job of placing people in charge of different agencies that got the job done and made positive impacts on the industry. Specifically, Mike Johanns and Dr. Richard Raymond (former Undersecretary for Food Safety, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA) reviewed food-safety issues from all angles and attempted to understand how it would impact all establishments in the meat business, taken into consideration their size, he said.

Mr. Wenther listed points under various headings to reflect the agency’s performance over the last eight years. Listed under "the good" was a more concise position of inspection overtime was stated.

"For the meat industry, the achievement of getting a concise, understandable agency position of inspection overtime made a tremendous impact for everyone," Mr. Wenther said. "For once, the industry felt as though they understood the rules and how overtime was to be applied."

Developing the outreach department -- The Office of Outreach, Employee Education, and Training (OOEET) – was another good point. "For the portion of the meat industry that doesn’t have the luxury of a large staff, the agency provided a tool for the industry to utilize and become more aware of new technologies, regulations, HACCP, Food Safety Assessments, etc.," Mr. Wenther said. "There still is a lot of work that OOEET can do and with the vast nature of the meat industry across the U.S., it will be a task to reach everyone. AAMP hopes that OOEET will continue to work with the industry and industry trade associations to develop programs that relate to current issues facing the meat industry."

The agency’s willingness to work with the small-volume, independent processors was another "good" point under the Bush administration. "AAMP has seen a willingness of the agency to try to understand the industry in which they regulate," Mr. Wenther said. "When regulations are written, the ‘one size fits all’ concept cannot be applied because every business is different. Although food safety is essential, food safety can be achieved by the use of multiple methodologies and technologies."

AAMP, along with other meat industry trade associations, assisted in the development of Test and Hold guidelines to reduce the likelihood of contaminated product reaching the consumer…thus decreasing recalls, Mr. Wenther pointed out. "While recalls are still reported, we felt that as more of the industry embraces this business practice, the number of recalls should be reduced," he added.

Listed under "the not so good but it made a positive impact on food safety" point is Listeria monocytogenes regulation. "While industry may not like more regulations, the Lm regulation was useful to reduce the number of positives on ready-to-eat meat products," he said. "The agency seemed to understand that the industry was not all the same and gave multiple alternatives to address Lm in the production of Ready-to-Eat products. Although the regulation has been in place for some time, it should be re-evaluated and potentially changed to allow controlled levels of Lm on products that do not support the growth of Lm [similar to the Food and Drug Administration]."

Another point under the previous heading is E. coli regulation – over reduction in positives, Mr. Wenther said. "Overall, the amount of E. coli O157:H7 positives has decreased," he added. "Although zero seems to be unattained, the amount of positives have decreased. The agency must continue to work with the industry to continually reduce E. coli O157:H7, while understanding business limitations.

"It seems as though the agency has not taken accountability for the mark of inspection, and the only entity that can rely on it is the end consumer…leaving many small businesses liable for previously contaminated product," he continued.

Listed under "the ugly" was the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., Chino, Calif., recall of approximately 143,383,823 pounds of raw and frozen beef products that was announced on Feb. 17, 2008. FSIS determined product to be unfit for human food because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection. This is the largest beef recall in history.

"The Hallmark recall was a black eye for the industry as a whole," Mr. Wenther said. "The abuse that was filmed was not a reflection of how the industry functions as a whole."

Just as food safety is of great importance to the meat industry, so is humane handling of livestock, he added. "When inhumane videos get released, it seems that the agency goes on high alert and gets very sensitive to the smallest of issues that are not truly an inhumane action," he continued. "Inhumane treatment is still very subjective and is focused on only one portion of the animal agriculture industry."

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