WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Supermarket and meat industry groups have dropped their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its new program to test ground beef in retail outlets for the potentially deadly bacteria E. coli 0157:H7.
The decision to drop the suit follows the industry's failure to convince a federal judge to issue a temporary injunction blocking the retail testing program, which was launched Oct. 17. As reported, in his Dec. 12 ruling allowing the program to continue, Judge James R. Nowlin of the U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas, said USDA was within its legal bounds to deem E. coli an adulterant and thus was legally able to test for its presence.
In deciding not to pursue the case further, the industry groups said their efforts would be better used in helping USDA develop a comprehensive meat inspection program and through legislation on Capitol Hill.
"The fact that such a misguided program could be initiated and, when challenged in court, upheld by one judge underscores the need for fundamental reform for the meat and poultry inspection system. Such reform must involve both legislative and regulatory change," said the industry groups in a joint statement.
Those challenging the inspection program were the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va.; the Food Marketing Institute, Washington; the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, Falls Church, Va.; the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va.; the Southwest Meat
Association, Arlington, Texas; the Texas Retailers Association/Food Council, Austin, Texas, and the Texas Food Industry Association, also in Austin.
USDA officials offered no comment following the plaintiffs' decision to drop the lawsuit. The agency has maintained the in-store testing program is needed in order to provide a comprehensive food-safety program. USDA officials also frequently note that the rate of occurrence of the potentially deadly E. coli in meat that reaches supermarkets is well below 1%. To date, no positive E. coli samples have been found through the USDA testing program.
The industry groups haven't developed a strategy yet on how next to attack the E. coli in-store testing program. But the issue is likely to surface again in 1995 when USDA issues a proposal to revamp the federal meat and poultry inspection program, based on a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, or HACCP, program.
HACCP programs emphasize strict monitoring of procedures at points where meat could be contaminated during the production and distribution process. The industry groups say the in-store program of inspection in question runs contrary to HACCP principles because it focuses on meat long after the point of contamination, which with E. coli is believed to be at the point of processing.
The industry groups are also concerned that the testing program, should positive samples be found and recalls ordered, could spark consumer panic and sully retailers' reputations.
"Hopefully, if the USDA pushes for an HACCP system, they will rethink their position on E. coli testing at retail, because it flies in the face of HACCP," an AMI spokeswoman said.
"Presumably, an inspection program like that might be on the table," said Bruce Gates, NAWGA's vice president of government affairs.
Harry Sullivan, senior vice president and general counsel of the FoodMarketing Institute, said by focusing industry efforts on helping to shape USDA's meat and poultry regulations, the agency could be convinced to change its mind about in-store testing. Otherwise, Sullivan said the industry would be caught up in months-long litigation defending its position in court.
He also said USDA's decision not to pin criminal liability on retailers whose meat tests positive for E. coli, unless recklessness could be proven, is a positive sign.