A listeria outbreak and a recall of 27 million pounds of poultry meats could have been prevented if the Agriculture Department required companies to test for the bacteria, consumer groups say.
More than 120 people were sickened and 20 people died in a listeria outbreak that began this summer in northeastern states. While investigating the illnesses, inspectors discovered a separate strain of the bacteria, prompting the Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. to recall 27 million pounds of Wampler Foods’ turkey and chicken products nationwide on Saturday. It was the largest meat recall ever.
Although the meat was not the cause of the listeria outbreak, genetic tests showed it was contaminated with another strain of the pathogen. Listeria can cause severe illness, death or stillbirth.
A food safety activist said the government should follow up on a standard it began drafting during the Clinton administration, which would require companies to test for the bacteria.
“I think there’s a good possibility if that rule had been in effect, we wouldn’t have this recall,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. The institute represents more than 285 consumer advocacy groups.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which has been criticized by members of Congress and activist groups for how it handles recalls, has yet to approve the listeria testing rule. The Bush administration put the proposal on hold in January 2001 and opened it for public comment until May 2001.
Nothing has happened since then, Tucker Foreman said.
The department has considered assessing the risks of listeria infection, but an evaluation only delays the rule’s approval, she said. “If that’s your standard, you never act,” Tucker Foreman said.
USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said stricter inspection standards may not prevent such episodes as the Wampler Foods recall. The agency has investigated the multistate listeria outbreak carefully, as well as the plant that issued the recall, he said.
“I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that if we had different regulation” the outbreak and recall could have been avoided, Cohen said.
Many companies, including Wampler Foods, do their own testing, he noted.
“Requiring companies to do their own environmental testing really wouldn’t have had impact on this situation,” Cohen said.
Meat processors have systems in place to prevent listeria and other foodborne illnesses, such as reheating products after they have been packaged and sealed, or killing pathogens in meat with irradiation, said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, an industry group.
Meat cannot be made bacteria-free just by approving tougher requirements, he said.
“Clearly, a standard on paper will not solve a problem simply because it exists,” Boyle said in a statement.
Tucker Foreman criticized the “ready to eat” and “cooked” labels on precooked foods as misleading to consumers.
Even though those products carry warnings that urge pregnant women and people prone to illness to reheat them, consumers probably don’t do so because they believe precooked meat is safe to eat, she said. Such labels should not be allowed, Tucker Foreman said.
Listeria contamination can occur in refrigerated foods, such as dairy products and sandwich meats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the bacteria causes 2,300 hospitalizations and 500 deaths per year. About 20 percent of people infected with the disease die. Pregnant women are most vulnerable â€” they are about 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to contract the illness.
The Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration require companies to issue recalls if inspectors find any trace of the pathogen in food.
Inspectors are continuing to investigate the listeria outbreak that sickened people in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania.