Some consumer groups and at least one major newspaper find little merit in a food industry lawsuit to halt random government testing of ground beef for contamination with the bacteria E. coli 0157:H7.
In a recent editorial, The New York Times accused the American Meat Institute, one of seven plaintiffs in the suit, of being hypocritical in its approach to reducing pathogens in meat and to ensuring public health.
"The American Meat Institute claims it is only trying to protect consumers from dangerously contaminated beef, but it has chosen an odd way to do so," the Times wrote in a late November editorial.
AMI, along with the Food Marketing Institute, the Texas Food Industry Association, the Southwest Meat Association, the Texas Retailers Association Food Council, the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association and the National Grocers Association, filed suit Nov. 1 against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, in Austin, challenges the department's beef sampling program primarily on the grounds that it was illegally implemented. A decision was still pending last week.
The suit claims that the testing program, which could result in product recalls, "could mislead consumers with promises of a safer food supply and as a result they may relax their own cooking and handling practices," said J. Patrick Boyle, AMI president.
The Times' response: "But surely a few well-publicized recalls would have just the opposite effect, alerting consumers to the threat of bacterial contamination. It is not the consumers the lawsuit seeks to protect but the industry's right to sell tainted beef."
Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of STOP, Safe Tables Our Priority, San Diego, a consumer activist group formed after the deaths of four children from E. coli in January 1993, said when her group heard about the lawsuit, "we just sat back and laughed.
"I really don't know what they were thinking and it really looks bad," said Rosenbaum.
She said STOP does feel sympathy for retailers and restaurateurs who take a "tremendous burden of liability for product they have no fault, for the most part, in contaminating."
Of course, she said, grocers and food-service operators could reduce cross-contamination by providing worker training on food handling, proper temperature control and sanitizing of equipment. "But basically, by the time the meat comes in to a grocery store, if it has E. coli in it, it is not their fault."
But by "doing this lawsuit, the industry is shooting itself in the foot," she said. "Instead of saying we want to find it and fund rapid testing, and let's not wait for government to do it, they seem like they are trying to hide something."
Michael Colby, the executive director of Food & Water, Marshfield, Vt., another consumer group that advocates food safety, called the lawsuit "the height of irresponsibility," and a move that is not pro-consumer. Janet Reilly, spokeswoman for AMI, said the criticism, specifically the New York Times commentary, reflects a lack of understanding of the issue.
"We are not surprised that some media outlets would take that approach, but clearly we maintain the merits of our case," she said. The plaintiffs also contend USDA's sampling program unfairly singles out ground beef while other raw meat and poultry products on the market also may contain E. coli 0157:H7.
Ronnie Cummins, director of Pure Foods Campaign, Washington, said, "certainly, our position on the lawsuit is that it is an outrage." In January 1993, PFC won a lawsuit against USDA that challenged its monitoring of the meat supply, and resulted in the creation of the Safe Food Handling labels, now on all packaged meats.
Cummins blames U.S. production methods for the country's problems with E. coli.
He said he believes the United States has to look to systems used by countries with lower rates of E. coli.
USDA's random sampling program, which tests supermarket packages of ground beef for E. coli, began Oct. 17. Illnesses resulting from E. coli can be fatal.