TOPICS > Health

Power to Recall Meat Processing Plants

August 29, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The food safety story is first tonight. Charles Krause has that.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Today’s request by Agriculture Sec. Dan Glickman for more legal authority over meat processing plants came on the heels of last week’s recall of 25 million pounds of hamburger produced by Hudson Foods.

DAN GLICKMAN, Secretary of Agriculture: One week ago I made a promise to the American people that when Congress returned from the August recess, I would have ready for them legislation to enhance USDA’s authority to improve the safety of America’s meat and poultry. I have the bill right now, which will be introduced–will be getting over to the Congress actually next week. It basically does three things. It gives USDA the authority to, one, order mandatory recalls of suspect meat and poultry; two, impose civil fines against plants and processors that violate USDA’s food safety laws; and three, expedite our existing authority to withdraw inspectors and shut plants down where there is a willful violation, where people knew what was right and still did what was wrong, or repeat violations. We need to be able to move decisively in these cases.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Last week’s hamburger recall was required to stop an outbreak of the potentially deadly bacterium, E. coli, a food-borne illness that can be killed only by cooking meat at temperatures of 160 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Although relatively rare in developed countries, the latest outbreak of E. coli contamination was discovered by health officials in Colorado who traced the illnesses of 17 people to beef patties produced by Hudson Foods.

At first, Hudson said its inspectors had not detected E. coli problems in the more than 50 tests the company conducted in recent months. But last week, Hudson Foods shut down its Nebraska beef processing plant indefinitely. Due to previous E. coli outbreaks and a growing concern on the part of public health officials last May Vice President Al Gore announced a new initiative to try to prevent future outbreaks of E. coli poisoning. A 43.2 million dollar food safety initiative was set in place, focusing on research, detection, and disease prevention.

But even with the new initiative the Agriculture Department still does not have the authority to force a meat processor to recall tainted meat. AT present, what the Department can do is withdraw its inspectors from a plant, leaving its products without the department’s FDA seal of approval. The Agriculture Department has tried to increase its authority in the past without success. Glickman said he’ll send his new proposals to Congress next week.

CHARLES KRAUSE: For more on today’s proposal the pros and cons, we’re joined by Carol Tucker Foreman, founder of the Safe Food Coalition. During the Carter administration she served as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in Charge of Meat and Poultry Inspection; and Dane Bernard, vice president of food safety for the National Food Processors Association, an industry group representing some 500 food processors nationwide. Thank you both for joining us. Ms. Foreman, you support this new legislation. Why?

CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN, Safe Food Coalition: Food-borne illness is a very serious problem in this country. About 9,000 people die from it every year. The Department of Agriculture, with the support of both consumers and the industry, has established a new inspection system that replaces one that’s almost a hundred years old. Now, the Department needs an enforcement system to go along with this new inspection system and to deal with the problems that come up in a world very sophisticated food system.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And how would mandatory recall–that’s a part of this new enforcement system?

CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: Yes. Because over the years the industry has agreed to recall, but they have to agree. And sometimes that takes a very long time. And while they’re agreeing, that meat is moving across state lines and even into foreign countries. It’s important to be able to act quickly when you know that people are getting sick.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Bernard, what’s wrong with that? Why are you against this?

DANE BERNARD, National Food Processors Association: I would agree with Carol in many aspects. We are all vested in our food–in the safety of our food. We want to make sure that if there’s a problem, that there’s an effective system in place to get product corrected that might be in the field. Our disagreement is that we feel that the current powers that the Department of Agriculture has is entirely adequate. And, as Carol alluded to, the system I think has worked well. Firms have voluntarily gone along with recalls. The agency has wide powers. If a firm were somewhat reluctant to go along with the recall, the penalties would be very severe. We don’t see right now the reason for enhancing that when we think the focus should be on moving ahead with this new inspection system and focusing on better ways to prevent these problems.

CHARLES KRAUSE: What about her point that it sometimes takes a long time for this voluntary recall to take place and meanwhile, people may be in jeopardy?

DANE BERNARD: Actually, we haven’t seen inordinate amounts of time necessary to make these decisions. Even in the proposal that’s on the table today there is always an opportunity to discuss with the firm. That has to take place in order to make sure that the facts, as we know them, are adequate to make those kinds of decisions. So we’re in favor of that kind of a process, but we haven’t seen inordinate amounts of time taken to where the public safety has been in any way jeopardized by the current system.


CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: I think that the very fact that you have the opportunity to seek voluntary compliance first undercuts the industry’s opposition. If a plant says, yes, I’m going to move quickly, then it can be done voluntarily. But when the Department runs up against somebody who wants to negotiate every single solitary point and that meat is continuing to move, the Secretary needs the ability to have–say, we’re going to cut it off, we’re going to act.

CHARLES KRAUSE: But is there evidence, in fact–you were Assistant Secretary of Agriculture some years ago–is there evidence that, in fact, companies in this country resist?

CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: Oh, yes. And I had that experience. I remember going through several days of meetings with a couple of companies. And we were negotiating the size of the recall and how quickly it would be done and how much–how the measuring would be done.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Bernard, in a sense, if you’re right, granting that for a moment, that perhaps that, in fact, companies do not resist, why not–so what’s the big deal with the legislation?

DANE BERNARD: Well, obviously, anybody that’s involved in this situation is going to have some need to know exactly the reason why, et cetera. And if there is a reluctance, and sometimes there is, as Carol has alluded to, if the Department doesn’t feel that things are moving along quickly enough, it’s very simple for the Department to exercise the powers that it has now, and alert the media that there’s a problem, that they don’t think this food is safe, and, in fact, in a very public way, the recall is effected in that manner. And those things are already on the table.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Ms. Foreman, would this legislation–had it been passed a month ago–would it have made any difference with regard to the Hudson Foods case?

CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. First of all, the new inspection system isn’t in effect yet. The Department’s looking for authority that will surface as the new inspection system goes into effect. Ultimately, there will be fewer inspectors in the plant. The federal presence will be less, and this is one of the ways that you prepare for that.

CHARLES KRAUSE: You mentioned–both of you have mentioned–this new inspection system, which is separate from the legislation that’s been proposed today.


CHARLES KRAUSE: What is going to change? How is this going to work?

CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: I’m actually going to let Dane address that because he is an expert. Dane, why don’t you start, and I’ll just fill in.

DANE BERNARD: I’d be glad to. Carol is too modest in this regard because her constituency, as well as ours, in the industry has worked with the agency to help craft what we think is a program that’s going to be of great public benefit. It’s going to benefit the industry ultimately by making the industry more responsible in terms of the safety of the food that’s produced by allowing the industry to do its job with adequate oversight by the agency. It’s a system that by its very nature will ask food processors to do not only what is guidance material from the agency, but to market their processes and do the best they can within the constraints of their process to make a safe product. And that one aspect is very unique. It now puts the responsibility for taking that in-depth look at how to make a safe product squarely on the shoulders of the industry. And most of the industry welcomes the opportunity to do that.

CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: Dane’s right about that. Before there were only two people responsible for food safety. The inspector in the plant, who was supposed to catch it and catch a problem, and the person who cooked it in the kitchen, now each person who handles it will be responsible, and that has to be helpful in addition to the first time the government will set standards, set limits on microbial contamination.

CHARLES KRAUSE: So will this solve the problem of E. coli bacterium in this country? I mean, will we all be safe once this takes effect?

CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: We all hope that it will reduce the problem of food-borne illness. But our food system’s changed enormously. It is truly worldwide now. Food gets handled a number of times. When I was a kid, we slaughtered the chickens in the backyard and made them for Sunday dinner. Nobody does that, or not many people do that anymore. Every time you handle meat you have a chance to get it contaminated. So, no, this doesn’t eliminate the problem. We all have to take responsibility in our own kitchens. I think that it’s important–in addition to this new system where everybody takes responsibility to get those people who don’t take responsibility. That’s what this enforcement provision is for.

CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. I think we’ll leave it there. I want to thank you both very much for joining us.