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Coalition: USDA Traceback Policy Lacking

Food Safety Coalition Seeks Common Sense Change to USDA Meat Traceback Policy

On Tuesday, members of the Safe Food Coalition (SFC) delivered a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging an immediate change in the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS’s) E. coli O157:H7 traceback policy.

meat-grinder-featured.jpgThe request follows a similar letter delivered in April 2009, which recommended that the FSIS trace meat contamination back to the source, and remove all affected product from commerce.

As it stands now, when FSIS finds E. coli O157:H7 in meat that has not yet entered commerce, it does not look up the supply chain to find the source of the contamination.

But in a global supply chain, one positive sample at the bottom of the chain–at a meat grinding plant, for example–could indicate a problem further up the supply line. According to SFC, this is “a dangerous loophole in agency procedure.”  

The SFC, a group of consumer and public health organizations, is concerned by inaction from FSIS on the issue. “While the agency held an informational meeting regarding their process, there has been no policy response,” said the group in its letter to Vilsack.

“[FSIS] does not take these same steps when its routine microbiological testing program for E. coli O157:H7 detects the pathogen in ground product at a federally inspected facility or at retail,” the coalition said in a statement. “Since FSIS’s routine testing for E. coli typically finds the pathogen 40 times a year, this lack of action on behalf of the government agency misses critical opportunities to prevent illness and unnecessarily threatens public health.”

“Because contamination starts before beef is ground into hamburger – often at a different company’s facility – the agency should investigate back in the supply chain to find the original source of the problem,” said the SFC.

“Without doing this, USDA fails to prevent even more contaminated product from reaching consumers.”

Felicia Nestor, a senior food policy analyst at Food & Water Watch who has been pressing the FSIS to strengthen its regulatory policies for over 15 years, called current FSIS traceback policy “a criticall issue for public health.”

“To have this critical agency policy (with respect to what it does when it finds pathogens in commerce) be so arcane inspires little confidence, calls into question the agency’s claim of transparency, and reasonably raises the question about whether it is intentional,” said Nestor, in an email to Food Safety News.

Members of the Safe Food Coalition who signed onto the letter include: Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch, Government Accountability Project, National Consumers League, Safe Tables Our Priority, and United Food & Commercial Workers International Union.

© Food Safety News
  • jmunsell

    Shockingly, when a USDA inspector collects a ground beef sample for analysis at a USDA lab, the inspector is prohibited from documenting (on the day of sample collection) the SLAUGHTER HOUSE OF ORIGIN where the meat was originally produced. Instead, the inspectors are required to wait until the lab test is a confirmed positive (4 days later) before documenting the true origin of contaminated meat. By that time, the trail of evidence has turned cold, and grinders are provided an opportunity to present whatever “evidence” it desires regarding the alleged source of the bad meat.
    3 years ago, the USDA District Office in Minneapolis mandated that its field inspectors “request” such information at the time of sample collection…….a courageous move by the manager of the DO. When I was notified of this, I praised the Minneapolis manager for such a bold, pro-public health decision. As soon as agency officials in WDC were informed of this Minneapolis policy, the policy was immediately reversed. Hmmm. “USDA-Style” HACCP is noncompatable with courage, common sense, or true science.
    When my plant experienced 3 consecutive days of e.coli positives in February, 2002, both the inspector and I copiously documented that the impacted meat originated from coarse ground beef I had purchased from an outside source slaughter provider. The inspector’s hand-written and signed evidence appeared on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw on August 1, 2002. After the 3 consecutive days of adverse lab results, I then offered intact, unopened chubs of the coarse ground beef, at no charge, to USDA for them to conduct testing at agency labs. The agency refused my offer. Why? At the conclusion of an OIG investigation at my plant in August, 2002, we discussed the agency’s refusal of my previous offer of the free chubs of coarse ground beef. The agency’s #1 Montana official stated “The compliance officer wanted to accept my offer of free chubs, but Minneapolis said “NO, because ConAgra would sue the agency”. End quote. What does this mean?
    First of all, Directive 10,010.1 exempted the largest slaughter plants, including ConAgra, from agency-conducted microbial testing. (That in itself reveals that the agency is more concerned in maintaining its comfortable relationship with the big packers than its duty to protect public health). Because of this Directive, FSIS concluded that the agency could not test meat emanating from any packer which was covered by Directive 10,010.1, even when faced with smoking gun evidence that the packer had sent contaminated meat into commerce. Secondly, FSIS is paralyzed with fear whenever it contemplates taking MEANINGFUL enforcement actions against large packers, knowing that the agency will quickly be the defendent in litigation. This scenario is the easily-anticipated result of “USDA-Style” HACCP, which is but a pseudo-scientific method of deregulated meat non-inspection which insulates the large source slaughter providers from government oversight, by intentional agency design.
    I am no prophet, but confidently inform you that when the agency hosts its “Traceback Public Hearing” in WDC in March, FSIS will merely provide additional prosaic Notices and Directives which will multiply meaningless words, while providing no imaginative solutions to this ongoing problem which the agency continually refuses to face head-on. This also reveals the systemic opposition which Dr. Elisabeth Hagen will encounter, if she is crazy enough to suggest to the agency’s career lifers that meaningful traceback policies be implemented.
    This public scandal begs for a modern day Upton Sinclair. Only the new book will not focus on the meat plants, but on the very government agency which is charged with protecting the public from food-borne outbreaks. FSIS adroitly avoids delicate confrontations with the big packers, while tormenting and harrassing small downstream plants which unwittingly purchase meat which has been previously contaminated with invisible pathogens. Folks, get used to it! FSIS will never change, as long as it is run by its current top officials.
    John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    Shockingly, when a USDA inspector collects a ground beef sample for analysis at a USDA lab, the inspector is prohibited from documenting (on the day of sample collection) the SLAUGHTER HOUSE OF ORIGIN where the meat was originally produced. Instead, the inspectors are required to wait until the lab test is a confirmed positive (4 days later) before documenting the true origin of contaminated meat. By that time, the trail of evidence has turned cold, and grinders are provided an opportunity to present whatever “evidence” it desires regarding the alleged source of the bad meat.
    3 years ago, the USDA District Office in Minneapolis mandated that its field inspectors “request” such information at the time of sample collection…….a courageous move by the manager of the DO. When I was notified of this, I praised the Minneapolis manager for such a bold, pro-public health decision. As soon as agency officials in WDC were informed of this Minneapolis policy, the policy was immediately reversed. Hmmm. “USDA-Style” HACCP is noncompatable with courage, common sense, or true science.
    When my plant experienced 3 consecutive days of e.coli positives in February, 2002, both the inspector and I copiously documented that the impacted meat originated from coarse ground beef I had purchased from an outside source slaughter provider. The inspector’s hand-written and signed evidence appeared on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw on August 1, 2002. After the 3 consecutive days of adverse lab results, I then offered intact, unopened chubs of the coarse ground beef, at no charge, to USDA for them to conduct testing at agency labs. The agency refused my offer. Why? At the conclusion of an OIG investigation at my plant in August, 2002, we discussed the agency’s refusal of my previous offer of the free chubs of coarse ground beef. The agency’s #1 Montana official stated “The compliance officer wanted to accept my offer of free chubs, but Minneapolis said “NO, because ConAgra would sue the agency”. End quote. What does this mean?
    First of all, Directive 10,010.1 exempted the largest slaughter plants, including ConAgra, from agency-conducted microbial testing. (That in itself reveals that the agency is more concerned in maintaining its comfortable relationship with the big packers than its duty to protect public health). Because of this Directive, FSIS concluded that the agency could not test meat emanating from any packer which was covered by Directive 10,010.1, even when faced with smoking gun evidence that the packer had sent contaminated meat into commerce. Secondly, FSIS is paralyzed with fear whenever it contemplates taking MEANINGFUL enforcement actions against large packers, knowing that the agency will quickly be the defendent in litigation. This scenario is the easily-anticipated result of “USDA-Style” HACCP, which is but a pseudo-scientific method of deregulated meat non-inspection which insulates the large source slaughter providers from government oversight, by intentional agency design.
    I am no prophet, but confidently inform you that when the agency hosts its “Traceback Public Hearing” in WDC in March, FSIS will merely provide additional prosaic Notices and Directives which will multiply meaningless words, while providing no imaginative solutions to this ongoing problem which the agency continually refuses to face head-on. This also reveals the systemic opposition which Dr. Elisabeth Hagen will encounter, if she is crazy enough to suggest to the agency’s career lifers that meaningful traceback policies be implemented.
    This public scandal begs for a modern day Upton Sinclair. Only the new book will not focus on the meat plants, but on the very government agency which is charged with protecting the public from food-borne outbreaks. FSIS adroitly avoids delicate confrontations with the big packers, while tormenting and harrassing small downstream plants which unwittingly purchase meat which has been previously contaminated with invisible pathogens. Folks, get used to it! FSIS will never change, as long as it is run by its current top officials.
    John Munsell