US Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro today introduced legislation to guarantee that contaminated meat, poultry and egg products are taken off the market.
The 3rd District Democrat said that the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has failed to recall some tainted food because it claims it doesn’t have the authority to do so under current law.
“We need federal agencies that will protect public health, not bend to the threats of deep-pocketed food producers seeking to escape regulation,” DeLauro said, in a statement with Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat, who is the bill’s co-sponsor.
They pointed out that the USDA failed to recall chicken produced by California-based Foster Farms, despite a salmonella outbreak over the past year that got more than 600 people sick and resulted in some 240 hospitalizations. This is double the amount of hospitalizations in a typical salmonella outbreak, according to DeLauro, a member of the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee.
The proposed legislation would require the USDA to recall meat, poultry and egg products contaminated by pathogens linked to serious illness or death, or that are resistant to two or more “critically-important antibiotics for human medicine,” according to a statement issued by DeLauro and Slaughter.
Diane Hirsch, food safety educator at the University of Connecticut Extension Service, said that the law could result in moving “contaminated products off the shelves faster,” but she questioned how often the USDA will act.
“In reality, will they use this authority as frequently as we would like? We don’t know,” said Hirsch, who works at the New Haven County extension center in North Haven.
“We appreciate the congresswomen’s ongoing efforts on our shared goal of ensuring food safety standards continue to be stringent, effective, and constantly improving,” said a spokesperson for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service.
The USDA has maintained that current law limits its ability to recall food. Cameron Faustman, associate dean of the UConn Department of Agriculture and Nature Resources and an animal science professor, agreed “the regulation is pretty clear. The USDA is limited.”
But, DeLauro and Slaughter expressed belief that the USDA currently has the authority to issue such recalls and said they “strenuously object” to the department’s interpretation of the law. They said their bill would “ensure there is no confusion.”
They pointed out that “despite the length and severity” of the Foster Farm salmonella outbreak, “none of the company’s products have been recalled by the USDA because of the legal ambiguity.”
In a report last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that two million Americans get sick from antibiotic-resistant pathogens a year, resulting in about 23,000 deaths. The report labels as “serious” threats the two pathogens most commonly associated with raw poultry, salmonella and campylobacter. It predicts that serious threats “will worsen and may become urgent without ongoing public health monitoring and prevention activities.”
Hirsch said the bill would put the USDA rules in line with mandatory food safety recall authority recently given to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulate some foods.
Faustman said DeLauro’s bill would “put the onus on the company producing the food to bear the burden” of the cost of a recall. He said it can be a time-consuming and costly process involving testing, finding the problem, providing information about results, and locating all of the retail outlets where the product has been placed. “You’re not going to have 100 percent effectiveness,” he said. But, he added, there’s a “greater likelihood” of being effective under the proposed bill “than you would otherwise.”
DeLauro and 10 legislators, including U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2, asked the USDA in a letter to: require testing for salmonella and campylobacter in poultry plants; and implement standards for determining microbial contamination of chicken parts, which, they said, are consumed more in this country than whole chickens.
The lawmakers criticized proposed reductions in USDA inspectors, saying “it is essential that effective, trained employees are retained for this purpose.”
The USDA plans to implement “the first-ever performance standards for salmonella in chicken parts and ground poultry later this year,” according to the spokesperson.
Some food safety advocacy groups praised the DeLauro-Slaughter measure. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said although she believes that the USDA can act now to recall “dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella,” the proposed legislation would “remove any shadow of a doubt” about the USDA’s legal authority to act and “keep these particularly dangerous strains of bacteria out of the food supply.”
Tony Corbo, lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, said the bill would provide “the necessary regulatory tools to prevent contaminated products from reaching our dinner tables.’’