Statement of CFA's Carol Tucker Foreman on FDA Listeria Risk Assessment

Chris Waldrop, (202) 797-8551
October 21, 2003

"The FDA today released a final risk assessment and risk ranking for Listeria monocytogenes. As in the draft risk ranking published three years ago, FDA and USDA have told the public what we already know. So-called "cooked," "ready-to-eat" meat and poultry products, especially deli meats, are the foods presenting the highest risk to consumers.

"Today the government-approved labels on those packages mislead consumers. They say "cooked," "ready-to-eat," "USDA inspected and Approved," and "best if used by" this date. All of those messages tell consumers it is okay to open and consume. This is clearly not the case. USDA should act immediately to protect at-risk groups by putting the message on the label where it is obvious at the time the product is consumed. USDA should require that these products carry a label that says, "If you are pregnant or immune suppressed, reheat this product thoroughly before eating." Both FSIS and FDA use this message in consumer education materials but USDA has consistently refused to add the message to product labels. Raw meat and poultry products are required to carry safe handling instructions but so-called "ready-to-eat" products, which may carry the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium do not have any information.

"It is important to have good and detailed risk assessments but government should not use the absence of final data to delay action. Based on the draft risk ranking in 2001, USDA could have begun to require meat and poultry processors to add new labeling. They continue to reject this option.

"The Food Safety and Inspection Service October 17 statement claiming major reductions in Listeria monocytogenes positives in testing performed by federal inspectors does not alleviate the need for these labels.

"The FSIS statement is more public relations than public health. The agency proclaimed victory by comparing disparate numbers-the results of nine months of testing in 2003 to 12 months in 2002 and previous years.

"Second, the agency has not addressed the very serious assertion that plants are given prior notification of the testing and an opportunity to do a special clean up before the testing is performed. In 2002 a USDA meat inspector assigned to the Pilgrims Pride plant responsible for a 2002 Listeriosis outbreak charged that the Pennsylvania plant was given advance notice and time to do a clean up before being tested.

"A further problem is that the USDA weakened the Listeria rule proposed by the Bush Administration in 2001. It dropped the requirement that regulated plants test meat products for the disease-causing form of Listeria (Listeria monocytogenes) after finding the nonpathogenic form Listeria spp in the plant environment. This provision, dropped at the behest of the meat industry, weakens public health protection. Federal inspectors can perform only a few thousand tests each year. The dropped requirement would have made companies take responsibility for their actions and would concentrate testing where it is clear there is a potential problem.

"The bottom line is that consumers should not assume that meat stamped 'USDA inspected and approved, cooked and ready-to-eat' is safe. It may harbor pathogens that cause serious illness and can kill 20 percent of the people infected. Pregnant women and immune suppressed individuals are especially vulnerable.

"CFA and other consumer groups praised USDA for expanding testing by inspectors. We hope it is having a salutary impact but there is no way to know because the Department of Agriculture continues to play games with testing data. This type of action undermines the credibility of the Bush Administration's claim to a strong commitment to improve food safety."

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Carol Tucker Foreman is the Director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America.