Former FSIS head, consumer advocates are backing Sen. Tester’s traceback bill

Former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) undersecretary for food safety, Dr. Richard Raymond and consumer advocates have voiced strong support for a meat safety bill introduced by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) last week.

Tester’s bill, the Meat Safety and Accountability Act, would require the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to “design and implement–using its existing budget–an initiative to trace tainted meat back to the original source of contamination,” otherwise known as “traceback.”  As it stands now, when FSIS finds E. coli O157:H7 in a meat sample, it does not look up the supply chain to find the source of the contamination. Instead, a full investigation happens when there is a foodborne illness outbreak connected to a meat product.

Dr. Raymond, who led the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) from 2005 to 2008, said last week he supports Sen. Tester’s bill. Not tracing contaminated meat back to the source results in “valuable time that is lost, as the product from the source slaughter plant was most likely split amongst many small processors,” he said.

“If they wait until there is an outbreak it may be weeks vs days before they begin to trace back, increasing the odds that all the product has been sold and consumed.”

“It appears to me that this is legislation that not only will help further protect the public, but will also help protect the small meat processors of this country,” wrote Raymond in a blog post on Meatingplace, an online community for the meat industry. “FSIS can and must do better than just require more and better testing by the processors. The Agency can take product out of commerce before it reaches consumers in a much more efficient and effective way than mandating hold and test.”

“This bill will help us get it right,” he added.

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, said Consumers Union also approves of the bill.

“We think it’s a good bill. This should be routine,” said Halloran. “They should always trace back to the source when they find contamination.”

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

According to Nestor, the majority of FSIS testing occurs at very small facilities. “The majority of those are not slaughterhouses, so they must have gotten the material from some other slaughterhouse,” she explains. “The majority of [meat] recalls have been from plants that do not slaughter,” and FSIS does not look back at the slaughterhouses, making it difficult to correct the problem and keep contaminated meat out of the food supply.

“If you look at the agency’s history of E. coli testing, it really looks like their main goal is to protect the large slaughter plants,” said Nestor.

“Right before HACCP, [FSIS] did most of the testing at retail. The minute they implemented HACCP, they started most of the testing in the federally inspected slaughter plants. However, right at the very beginning of HACCP, if you were using interventions and had a routine testing program–and only the largest slaughter plants were doing that–you were exempt from FSIS testing.”

“The agency did over 50 percent of the tests–and still does–at the plants that make less than 1 percent of the product [ground beef]. They do less than 5 percent of tests at the plants that make 95 percent of the product,” she added.

“The hypocricy is…the White House Food Safety Working Group says: ‘public health is our number one priority.’ Well, no it is not. If you’re not going to traceback and trace forward, public health is not your number one priority. If public health was you would have to do that.”

“You know there is likely contaminated product out there and people are buying it.”