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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 24 February 2003 Issue

U.S. meat plants must do more against E. coli, says USDA
By Randy Fabi, Reuters

WASHINGTON -- About 60 percent of the largest U.S. meat plants failed to meet federal food safety regulations for preventing a deadly E. coli bacteria in their products, the U.S. Agriculture Department said Tuesday.

The new information, coming after a series of massive meat recalls last year linked to scores of illnesses, shows that companies need to do more to keep food safe, consumer groups said.

In September, the USDA ordered all U.S. beef slaughter and grinding plants to reexamine their food safety systems after inspectors discovered E. coli 0157:H7 was more prevalent in meat than previously thought.

A preliminary review of these reassessments found 60 percent of 35 large meat plants did not meet federal food safety regulations, USDA officials said.

The USDA said it was the first examination of the so-called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, better known as HACCP, that was implemented in the late 1990s as a way for companies to set food safety checkpoints throughout the plant.

However, the USDA downplayed the findings, saying consumers should not be alarmed.

"They were scientific and design issues and not direct food safety issues," said Garry McKee, administrator for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. For example, many plants cannot verify that their food safety systems do prevent E. coli contamination, he said.

E. coli O157:H7, typically acquired through contaminated food or water, causes bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. In some cases, usually involving elderly or young children, it can lead to kidney failure and death.


Meat plants assessed in the study have been told to fix the problem within 30 days, McKee said. Meat companies are also being told add at least one safeguard in their food safety systems as an extra step to reduce the risk of E. coli.

With proposed record level funding for its food safety programs in fiscal 2004, the USDA said it would begin imposing the "next generation of enforcement" on the U.S. meat industry as part of its "war against E. coli."

"We are doing everything possible to prevent outbreaks of E. coli in the summer, certainly to prevent these large recalls that we've had," USDA Undersecretary Elsa Murano told reporters.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said USDA's findings proved companies were not following food safety programs as required.

"USDA promised HACCP would provide significantly safer food to consumers, but companies ... have not implemented this effectively for the past five years," she said.

E. coli 0157:H7 causes an estimated 73,000 infections and 61 deaths in the United States each year, according to government data. The bacteria is destroyed when meat is cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.


The White House on Monday proposed an $899 million budget in fiscal 2004 for food safety, hoping to repair its image after last year's series of massive recalls.

The recalls, which caused more than 100 illnesses and a handful of deaths, involved such large meat producers as Smithfield Foods Inc., ConAgra Foods Inc., Pilgrim's Pride Corp., and privately held Cargill.

If approved by Congress, the budget would increase the number of meat inspectors to 7,680 and double the number of E. coli tests at ground beef plants. However, much of the food safety budget increase would be paid for with industry user fees, which Congress has repeatedly rejected in the past.

The USDA said on Tuesday the White House budget proposal includes $18 million to create an Office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness to help prevent deliberate attacks against the U.S. food supply.

The Bush administration's budget proposal now goes to Congress. Fiscal 2004 begins on Oct. 1, 2003.

Source: Reuters  

Judy Reed of AnimalVoices, also known as Blueberrybelle  

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