WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture's new meat testing program hasn't yet turned up E. coli, but it is drawing increasing fire from the industry.
Agriculture Department inspectors found no evidence of E. coli in ground beef samples taken from supermarkets during the agency's first two weeks of testing in stores.
Meanwhile, officials of the National Grocers Association said they might be considering legal action over the testing that would be similar to an earlier lawsuit against USDA over labeling. NGA joined in a suit against USDA last year to block the agency's plan to implement safe-handling and cooking labels for packaged meat.
As in the labeling case, NGA contends the agency has ignored its legal obligation to weigh public comment over a several-week period and prove the program is in the public interest before taking action. The other lobbying arms of the retail food industry, the Food Marketing Institute and the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, have also accused the agency of circumventing this rulemaking process. In the labeling lawsuit, which NGA filed with NAWGA, a federal judge forced the agency's Food Safety Inspection Service to follow the rulemaking process. While this resulted in the labeling program being delayed by several months, the nature of the program changed little. "FSIS has a legal obligation to demonstrate that any policy adopted is based upon scientifically supported information and that the proposed regulation will provide a reasonable and cost-effective solution," wrote Tom Zaucha, NGA president and chief executive officer, last week to FSIS Administrator Michael Taylor. "This new enforcement policy destroys consumer confidence in ground beef products and will impose a significant regulatory burden." In a letter to Taylor, Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of FMI, said, "It [the new program] will not measurably protect consumers. It could permanentlty ruin the good name of a supermarket company."
USDA officials continue to counter that the sampling program, launched Oct.17, is needed to "stimulate industry actions" to reduce the presence of E. coli in the meat supply, according to an agency memo on the program, which acknowledges the occurrence of E. coli in beef at retail is infrequent.