Citing his inability to force meatpackers to recall tainted products, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman asked Congress on Friday to give his department enhanced authority to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses.
“USDA needs more authority to act quickly and decisively to remove suspect products from the marketplace,” Glickman said, citing last week’s “voluntary” recall of 25 million pounds of hamburger as an example of the Agriculture Department’s limited enforcement powers.
His initiative, if enacted, would authorize the Agriculture Department to order recalls of suspect products, impose civil fines against processors and withdraw inspectors or shut down plants when there is “any willful or repeated violation of federal meat and poultry laws.”
Although opposition by the meatpacking industry has derailed similar proposals in the past, Glickman is convinced that growing public concern about food safety enhances prospects for passage.
“We have asked for these authorities before, but I think the dynamics of the debate have changed a bit in light of recent events,” he said.
Glickman was referring to the discovery of a potentially deadly strain of the E. coli bacterium in frozen hamburger patties manufactured at a Hudson Foods Co. processing plant in Nebraska. The tainted patties were linked to an outbreak of food-borne illness in Colorado.
Under current law, USDA has no authority to mandate the recall of contaminated meat and poultry. Instead, it must try to persuade meat processors to recall products voluntarily.
Hudson Foods, in fact, agreed to a voluntary recall. But it did so under an implicit threat by the Agriculture Department that it would withdraw its safety inspectors from the plant, which has been closed temporarily.
“The implications of this recall have led us to ask Congress for prompt approval of this legislation,” said Glickman. He said the measure would be presented to Congress next week when the Senate and House return from a four-week summer break.
The National Food Processors Association, which represents an industry that generates $430 billion in annual revenues, said it sees no justification for expanding the USDA’s power.
“While we share the secretary’s concern that contaminated food be promptly removed from the marketplace, the current system has been effective in accomplishing this for decades,” said Dane Bernard, vice president for the NFPA’s food safety programs.
The Agriculture Department, Bernard said, “already has all the power it needs to assure that foods are recalled if necessary.” While such recalls technically are voluntary, he added, the department’s ability to withdraw inspectors and publicize safety problems “virtually guarantees that food companies will respond quickly to recall recommendations.”
Similar reform measures were introduced in Congress in 1994 and 1996, but failed to attract enough support to secure passage.
Glickman’s new proposal is expected to draw vigorous opposition from the National Food Processors Association, the American Meat Institute and other powerful industry organizations.
Still, Glickman expressed confidence his proposal will be better received in Congress this year. “When the public speaks, their elected representatives listen,” he said, citing the Hudson Foods problem.
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