CFA's Carol Tucker Foreman on NAS Meat Safety Report: NAS Tells Congress to Give USDA Authority to Set, Implement and Enforce Food Safety Performance Standards

April 24, 2003
Art Jaeger (202) 387-6121

"The National Academy of Sciences Committee on Scientific Criteria to Ensure Safe Food today recommended that 'Congress should grant the regulatory agencies clear authority to establish, implement and enforce food safety criteria, including performance standards and the flexibility needed¼to update these standards.' The Committee also recommended testing beef trim for E. coli O157:H7.

 "The clear message to the meat and poultry industry, the Bush Administration and some in Congress is-an effective 'science-based' food safety system requires changing the law to permit performance standards. Performance standards and an effective science-based system that will protect public health are inextricably entwined. For those who say they want a 'science-based' system, the scientific community has now spoken. Further opposition to change should be recognized for what it is, a desire to protect the industry's least effective, least competent and least responsible from requirements to protect public health. Congress should act. The Agriculture Department and the industry should stop impeding the action necessary to reduce food-borne illness and protect the public health.

"Consumer Federation of America commends the Academy Committee for recognizing this authority is essential to an effective food safety system. Congress should act immediately. The need for change is widely recognized and urgent. Food-borne illness continues to be a severe public health problem. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the Supreme Beef case that USDA has no authority to set and enforce limits on Salmonella contamination. In January USDA settled a case, Nebraska Beef, in which the company challenged the Department's authority to enforce its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point inspection system and sanitary standards.

"While CFA has worked with Senators Harkin and Durbin and Representatives DeLauro, Eshoo and others toward this goal, granting USDA effective powers to set and enforce performance standards has been opposed by the meat and poultry industry and by USDA's Under Secretary for Food Safety.

"Last month Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, recognizing that we will not be able to reduce the current high toll of food-borne illness with meat inspection laws dating from the days of the 'Model T,' declared that she is prepared to consider changes. She was excoriated by the meat industry. Today, the NAS joins the call for change. The food industry says it wants a science-based system. NAS says that must include authority to set and enforce performance standards. It has added its voice to the need for Congressional action. Last year USDA had a record high number of recalls of contaminated meat. Last week the Centers for Disease Control noted that E. coli O157:H7 poisoning has not declined and that Salmonella poisoning seems to be increasing. There is no excuse for Congress to delay acting.

"Today's recommendation for change comes from an NAS committee composed entirely of meat scientists, food technologists and veterinarians, most of whom have been consultants to the regulated industry or whose research is sponsored by the industry. The Subcommittee on Meat and Poultry did not have any scientist with public health credentials, no one with experience in regulation, and no consumer representative. While the committee report has reached the right conclusion on the need to change the law, the credibility of the NAS is not well served by a process that allowed a major subcommittee to function without representation from areas of expertise vital to the substance of their work. The NAS did retain expert consultants from the public health and regulatory fields but this only emphasized that, in this instance, the NAS constructed a committee that was both narrow and limited in its views."