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.