The Agriculture Department should have warned schools to check their freezers and refrigerators immediately after a company recalled meat linked to a listeria outbreak, consumer groups and advocates say.
Days after the department announced Sunday a Wampler Foods’ plant in Franconia, Pa., was recalling 27 million pounds of chicken and turkey meat, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman released a statement Thursday that said the agency had purchased 1.8 million pounds of ready-to-eat turkey products for the federal lunch program.
“Isn’t it amazing that they didn’t look for that (in schools) before now?” said Donna Rosenbaum, spokeswoman for the advocacy group, Safe Tables Our Priority. “I find it unconscionable that they would not jump on that immediately after issuing the recall.”
No illnesses have been reported at the schools, but the department still is investigating which ones received the meat and how much, according to background information that was provided to reporters with Veneman’s statement
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said turkey deli meat from the Wampler Foods’ plant in Franconia, Pa., probably caused a listeria outbreak in the Northeast that killed seven people and sickened 36. Wampler Foods is owned by Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride.
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation’s Food Policy Institute and a leading critic of the department’s meat and poultry testing program, wondered why it seemed that the government is hiding information as it investigates this latest recall.
“They have known for some period of time that some of this meat was distributed to schools,” she said. “Why haven’t they told the public that that was the case? Elementary students are in the vulnerable populations for listeria illness. Why keep that a secret?”
Alisa Harrison, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, said schools were informed in general terms of the expanded recall on Sunday. The Department routinely advises schools of such a recall, she said.
Veneman in her statement attempted to allay concerns about how the agency has handled the recall.
“Let there be no doubt about our determination and the seriousness in which we take these important food safety matters,” Veneman said. She noted the agency already has increased food safety funding, revamped inspector training programs, and hired additional inspectors.
Veneman also said she is directing food safety officials to strengthen their current listeria-testing program. She said the department was examining “ways to enhance its food safety programs through sound policy and the best scientific resources available.”
Safe Tables Our Priority leaders sent a letter to President Bush, urging that the Agriculture Department make final a rule, drafted during the Clinton administration, to monitor listeria.
Food safety groups argue that the rule it could prevent outbreaks because it requires companies to test for listeria. Many plants, including Wampler Foods, already do their own testing, according to the industry.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in a letter to Veneman on Thursday, called on her to approve the rule as soon as possible. “Moving forward with performance standards for ensuring that ready-to-eat products are not adulterated with listeria would bring consumers needed protection,” he wrote.
Veneman said her office nearly has completed its risk assessment study of listeria, which is “critical to implement this rule.”