WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Replying with strong words to a supermarket and meat industry lawsuit over testing ground beef for E. coli bacteria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it is acting within its legal bounds to protect the public health.
nd consume ground beef known to be tainted with this highly virulent and potentially deadly bacteria, because their purely economic interest in selling contaminated products outweighs any consideration of public health," the USDA said. "The Federal Meat Inspection Act clearly authorizes USDA to prevent tainted meat from entering the marketplace and to use existing enforcement tools to prevent an unhealthy product containing E. coli 0157:H7 from reaching the consumer," the USDA said. The USDA last month began random testing of ground beef at retail stores as part of a broader program to prevent the spread of the E. coli bacteria. The agency plans to perform tests at some 5,000 stores a year. If contamination is found, it will ask stores and suppliers of the specific meat lot to voluntarily recall the product. E. coli occurs naturally in the intestines of humans and animals, entering the meat supply at the point of processing. Thoroughly cooking meat kills the bacteria, which the USDA estimates occurs in 0.2% of all ground beef. The plaintiffs, while arguing they are just as committed as the USDA to protecting consumers, contend the testing unfairly singles out the supermarket industry since the contamination occurs at the producer level. They say publicity surrounding recalls will erode public confidence in the meat supply and potentially taint the reputations of supermarkets. They also accuse the USDA of circumventing the federal Administrative Procedures Act, which requires a comment period to allow for public input into the rule in question, in this case, the creation and implementation of the testing program. The agency denies the charge because it does not view the program as a "legislative rule" requiring the use of federal rulemaking procedures.