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USDA User Fees Could Pay for Meat Recalls, Additional Testing

Feb 5, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) could soon start assessing user fees to pay for meat inspections and other food safety initiatives.  There were over 52 meat recalls last year, 21 of which involved E. coli tainted meat.  Ten of the meat recalls were the result of routine USDA testing.  As a result, the USDA has expanded testing and has begun recalling infected meat more rapidly in order to fight E. coli.   To help pay for stepped up testing programs, the White House has proposed two new user fees that would allot $96 million to help pay for additional meat inspections.  The White House said the proposal, which requires congressional approval, would generate fees that would reduce future appropriation needs.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) oversees about 20 percent of the food supply, including eggs, red meat, and poultry. The agency currently employs approximately 7,800 federal inspectors.  Each year, the USDA tests thousands of meat and poultry products for bacteria, including E. coli 0157:H7. E. Coli  Strain 0157:H7 is quite virulent and produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness and even death and is the leading cause of food and waterborne illness in the United States.

In its fiscal 2009 budget, the Bush administration proposed a plan that is expected to generate $92 million of the $96 million through a licensing fee that all meat plants would pay based on production levels.  The additional $4 million would be collected from plants that require additional testing, have recalls, or inspections linked to an outbreak of food-borne illnesses.  "Every other facility in this country that can impact your health or any other person that can impact your health...has to have a license," said Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond. Meat plants "bear some responsibility to pay for part of their inspection fee."

Of last year’s recalls, the largest involved 21.7 million pounds (9.8 million kg) of ground beef distributed by Topps Meat Company.  The Topps Meat Company recall turned out to be the fifth-largest meat or poultry recall in U.S. history and led to nearly 100 illnesses in Canada and the United States.  The USDA came under fire during the Topps debacle for delaying the recall for several weeks  after tests showed Topps meat was linked to the E. coli outbreak.  Federal investigators said the company failed to require adequate testing of raw beef purchased from domestic suppliers and it sometimes mixed tested and untested meat in its grinding machines.  

In its budget proposal, the Bush administration proposed $952 million for the FSIS, representing an increase of $22 million from fiscal year 2008.  The fiscal year begins on October 1.  Overall, the FSIS would make up a small fraction of the proposed $94.8 billion Agriculture Department budget in fiscal 2009.

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