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Meat Recalls Under Fire

Dec 22, 2002 | AP A series of food-poisoning outbreaks that killed nine people and sickened 135 others has consumer groups and the meat industry questioning how the government handles meat recalls.

The Agriculture Department and processors now share the responsibility for “voluntary” recalls under a system that both the industry and consumer groups criticize as cumbersome and ineffective. While companies supposedly make the decisions voluntarily on whether to issue recalls, it is the department that announces them.

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Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, said the illnesses and deaths linked to large recalls this year are proof that the current system does not work.

Her group, which represents more than 300 consumer organizations, wants Congress to give the government authority to mandate recalls. Some of the bigger recalls this year started out small because of haggling between processors and the Agriculture Department over their size, but had to be expanded later, Foreman said.

More than 21 million pounds of hamburger meat from a Cargill-owned plant in Milwaukee and a ConAgra Beef Co. plant in Greeley, Colo., were eventually recalled, linked to E. coli contaminated meat that killed one person and sickened 90 people. The two recalls started out much smaller, totaling just 770,000 pounds from the two plants.

An outbreak of listeriosis in the Northeast over the summer prompted the largest recall in history. Eventually it covered more than 30 million pounds of precooked chicken and turkey packaged at a Wampler Foods plant in Pennsylvania and J.L. Foods plant in New Jersey.

Consumer groups complained that those recalls were not initiated until months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention picked up evidence of the listeria-produced outbreak. It killed eight people, caused three miscarriages and sickened another 45 people.

“Every day when a bargain goes on is a day when that food is being consumed and more people run the risk of getting sick,” said Foreman, the Agriculture Department’s assistant secretary for food and consumer services from 1977 to 1981. “Giving the government the power to go in and mandate a recall would eliminate some of the bargaining that goes on.”

The American Meat Institute, the industry’s trade association, says packers, rather than the government, should announce the recalls in addition to making the decision whether they are needed.

“If you had the company take the lead, if you had the company do the press release, that would take some of the inefficiencies out of the process,” said Mark Dopp, the institute’s vice president for regulatory affairs.

Dopp disputed critics’ arguments that processors might withhold vital information to consumers if they announced the recalls, claiming the government on occasion has put out misinformation.

Usually under pressure from the government, a meat company announces a recall and asks consumers and retailers to return a product after federal inspectors find evidence that meat could harm the public. The first hint of a problem sometimes comes from the CDC, which tracks food-borne diseases.

Bush administration officials oppose mandatory recalls, saying they have the potential of becoming arbitrary and capricious.

“We have not had any problem with a company ever refusing do to a recall,” said Agriculture Department Undersecretary Elsa Murano.

Mandatory recalls could put government officials in a position where “we fall into the danger of crying wolf, so to speak,” she said. “That affects our credibility with the public, too.”

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