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Schumer: Close Doors On Unclean Meat Packers

Oct 21, 2002 | Newsday

Meat packing companies that fail to pass repeated inspections for listeria bacteria should be closed by the federal government, Sen. Charles Schumer said yesterday.

Pointing fingers at an influential meat industry lobby, Schumer (D-N.Y.) said growing cases of meat contamination are putting more Americans at unnecessary risk.

Citing last week's recall of 27.4 million pounds of ready-to-eat turkey and chicken, Schumer said meat packers that repeatedly fail to keep meat free of listeria, E. coli and salmonella should be closed.

Those bacterias contribute to an estimated 76 million illnesses each year with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, he said.

"When you have 5,000 deaths a year, you know that that's not trivial at all," Schumer said. "And yet the meat industry with its power, with its contributions, with its lobbying, stops Congress from doing anything."

The meat was from the Pilgrim's Pride Corp. operating as Wampler Foods. It was the nation's largest recall ever.

This year, listeria has been blamed for 39 illnesses, seven deaths and three stillbirths in the Northeast, officials said.

Listeria is a microscopic bacteria found in meat. It can cause listeriosis that can result in high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's most severe in pregnant women and can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. It can also cause serious or fatal infections in people with weak immune systems such as infants, the frail or elderly and those with chronic diseases, HIV infection or on chemotherapy.

A USDA representative could not be reached yesterday. A spokeswoman for the American Meat Industry, an industry group, did not return messages late yesterday.

John Cetta, whose 2-year-old daughter contracted E. coli infection during a meal at a Sizzler in Milwaukee in July 2000, joined Schumer to urge stronger protection of meat.

Cetta, 37, a bank vice president from Bohemia, said his daughter, now 4, was hospitalized with kidney failure after eating contaminated watermelon.

"The restaurant used the same knife to cut steak, which was contaminated, and then cut watermelon with it, so if you think you don't eat meat you're safe, you could be wrong," Cetta said.

The restaurant reached an undisclosed settlement with the girl's family.

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