Recent recalls of precooked meat linked to a listeria outbreak prove the Agriculture Department’s current testing practices are “not completely adequate,” Dr. Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety, said yesterday.
The department tests meat for listeria, but the agency needs to improve the tests to protect the public’s health, Murano told a committee charged with helping the department improve food safety regulations.
A Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Franconia, Pa., recalled 27.4 million pounds of ready-to-eat chicken and turkey meat last month after federal inspectors found a genetic strain of listeria in the plant that matched the one blamed for an outbreak that sickened 50 people and killed seven in the Northeast, including two adults in New York City and an infant in Suffolk.
Another company, Jack Lambersky Poultry Co. Inc. in Camden, N.J., pulled 200,000 pounds of precooked meat on Nov. 2 after tests showed meat samples contained the same strain.
Consumer groups argue the outbreak and recalls could have been prevented if the government would approve a rule drafted by the Clinton administration. It would require companies to do their own testing for the food-borne illness to supplement testing by federal inspectors.
The department is performing an assessment before it approves the regulation. Murano said federal officials are studying how the pathogen may contaminate meat products during the production and packaging processes.
“Without that information, you’re basically shooting at the dark,” she said after speaking to the committee.
The Clinton administration did not do a risk assessment when it drafted the rule, Murano said. She declined to say when the agency will finish the study and finalize the regulation.