Some congressional Democrats want to know whether the Agriculture Department could have prevented the illnesses and deaths linked to a listeria outbreak and are urging the agency to toughen listeria testing rules.
Reps. Henry Waxman of California, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Nita Lowey of New York and Maurice Hinchey of New York sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Monday. They said they were concerned that the agency missed opportunities to prevent the outbreak, which has sickened 39 people and killed seven in the Northeast since early summer.
Wampler Foods in Franconia, Pa., recalled 27 million pounds of ready-to-eat turkey and chicken meat earlier this month after a federal investigation revealed traces of listeria in the plant.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said listeria found in the plant probably caused the outbreak.
The lawmakers said they were concerned to have learned the plant had conducted its own environmental tests for the deadly bacteria and found positive results “but failed to disclose this information to USDA inspectors at the time of the testing.”
They demanded that the agency give them information about sanitation violations at the plant, as well as copies of e-mails or other communications about food safety that took place between the Agriculture Department and Wampler Foods since Jan. 1, 2002.
Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said officials had not seen the letter and could not comment on it.
Officials at Wampler Foods did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The lawmakers urged Veneman to release details about the department’s plan for strengthening listeria testing rules and wanted to know when the rules would take effect.
They also asked the agency to tell them how much of the 1.8 million pounds of turkey products bought for the school lunch program and food banks had been returned.
Listeria is a bacterium that can cause severe illness or death. Children are among the people most vulnerable to the infection.
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