Statement of CFA’s Carol Tucker Foreman On ConAgra Ground Beef Recall

July 19, 2002
Contact: Art Jaeger (202) 387-6121

“Consumer Federation of America supports USDA’s decision to ask ConAgra to recall 18 million pounds of ground beef. It is the right thing to do.

“But this action comes only after 18 people have already been struck by E. coli O157:H7 poisoning. The Bush Administration has failed to insist that meat companies take responsibility and has not given strong support to pathogen reduction in raw meat and poultry products.

“This action comes after USDA testing showed a 31 percent increase in E. coli O157:H7 positives nationally this year over last year. By June 25, 2001, USDA had found 17 positives for E. coli. By June 26, 2002 the Department had found 25 positives. In both years the Department had taken approximately the same number of samples, 3,400.

“It comes after Bush Administration officials at USDA have consistently made clear they do not believe meat processors must beheld accountable for the safety of meat coming off the end of the line. Since November 2001, the Under Secretary for Food Safety has denigrated pathogen testing and zero tolerance.

“In November 2001, Under Secretary Murano stated in a speech to a food retailer’s trade association: ‘I recognize your innovative approach in proposing a voluntary testing program for E. coli O157:H7.’ The retailers went to court in 1995 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent USDA from instituting a mandatory E. coli testing program.

“On May 7, Under Secretary Murano told a USDA Pathogen Conference that the fact that one child had become ill with E. coli O157:H7 poisoning showed that ‘microbial testing and a zero- tolerance policy for this pathogen in raw product failed miserably. Neither was able to ensure the product was safe.’The Under Secretary might have acknowledged that testing, while not perfect, does reduce the incidence of disease.

“USDA testing for E. coli O157:H7 is limited to ground beef and the Department tests only 5,000 samples each year. The department should be conducting far more tests—25,000 per year to begin. In addition, USDA needs to institute a program to test carcasses for this deadly pathogen. Consumer organizations recently petitioned USDA to take that step. Congress could direct the Department to increase the testing and provide the funds to do it.

“While testing is not a panacea, it does have value. First, when contamination is found, that meat is removed before, not after, it causes illness. Second, if slaughterhouses, grinders and retailers know there is a substantial chance they will be tested and held accountable, they will exercise greater caution in avoiding E. coli O157:H7 adulteration. It is better to test the meat than it is to have to treat the illness.”

Carol Tucker Foreman is director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. She oversaw meat safety regulation as an assistant secretary of agriculture during the Carter Administration.