WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture here is mulling changes in its policies for recalling contaminated meat, while consumer groups and industry also call for change, but for different reasons.
After the USDA's recent record 25 million-pound recall of suspect hamburger patties from Hudson Foods, Rogers, Ark., agency officials held a meeting to discuss their regulatory reach, to see if changes should be made.
During the all-day session late last month, consumer advocates called for more public notification of meat recalls. In contrast, meat industry officials urged prudence in writing and issuing recall press releases and protested the agency officials' push in Congress to make recalls mandatory.
It's a familiar face-off and one that's becoming even more common as federal and state officials work to make food processors and retailers more accountable for reducing the presence of pathogens in all food.
The meat industry is opposing the USDA's bid to make its recall powers mandatory, arguing that the current system is working and, although it's voluntary, the agency still holds sway over the process, making companies foolish not to comply. There are no records of meat and poultry companies refusing a recall request.
The USDA "gives a company an option they can't refuse," said Jim Hodges, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., referring to the agency's power to withdraw inspectors from a plant, which effectively shutters a business. In addition, the USDA can secure a court order seizing shipments suspected of being contaminated and also publicize a company's unwillingness to cooperate.
Bill Olsson, an attorney representing the National Meat Association, Oakland, Calif., said the current recall system encourages company cooperation, but if recalls became mandatory then the process would likely become more adversarial and possibly slow the process. He said the push for mandatory recall authority also is contrary to agency policies under the new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point inspection systems. All meat and poultry processors are being required to have HACCP plans, which identify and scrutinize places in production where contamination is likely to occur. The USDA and companies are working closely in forging HACCP plans.
"I think we have a cooperative recall system that's worked," Olsson said.
Caroline Smith-DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest here, called the need for mandatory recall authority "an insurance policy" for when companies may resist USDA overtures.
"Don't worry about protecting the companies, we're talking about a public health concern," said Smith-DeWaal, also urging the USDA to generate more publicity over recalls of meat and poultry products.
In particular, she questioned why the USDA didn't issue public recall notices for about half of the 262 federal meat recalls since 1990. These unpublicized recalls involved meat and poultry shipped to restaurants and school cafeterias or destined for retailers but still in warehouses.
"Consumers have the right to know if there's contaminated food on the market," she said.
Jill Hollingsworth, a USDA deputy administrator for food safety who attended the meeting, said these recalls weren't publicized because the products wouldn't be identifiable to consumers. Additionally, if meat suspected of containing pathogens has been cooked -- thus killing bacteria -- and then consumed, then officials have seen no need for public notification.
The USDA can order recalls if officials find meat or poultry products misbranded or adulterated. According to agency directives, ground meat products, like hamburger, are considered adulterated if they contain the virulent E. coli 0157:H7, as in the Hudson Foods case. However, nonground meat or poultry containing pathogens, like raw chicken with traces of Salmonella or even E. coli 0157:H7, isn't considered adulterated and wouldn't be the focus of a recall, under current policy.
USDA officials single out ground meat -- comprising about 50% of all meat sales -- since it's common for it to be undercooked, which means any bacteria present won't be killed. Bacteria on whole meat products clings to the outside and is typically killed during cooking.
However, the USDA isn't totally disinterested about pathogens and whole meat products. Officials can force change in processing plants should the presence of pathogens be considered a problem.
While food processors aren't adverse to public recall notices, the USDA often pens press releases before notifying companies of any problems, said Robert Hibbert, an attorney representing the Eastern Meat Packers Association..... Companies, therefore, often are faced with very little time to review the USDA's concerns and provide information that could limit, or even expand, the scope of the recall.