October 8, 1997

Senate Agriculture Committee


Chairman Lugar and Distinguished Members of the Committee:

National Meat Association is a trade association representing meat packers and processors in the United States. It has provided information and guidance on regulatory matters to over 600 members for over fifty years. It is headquartered in Oakland, CA. Its Executive Director, Rosemary Mucklow, serves as a member of the National Meat and Poultry Advisory Committee.

Today's hearing is to consider the need for additional power in the name of mandatory recall legislation. The real problem before us is how to deal with deadly pathogens that enter the food supply, not more power. The Department's request for such legislation grows out of the recent E.coli O157:H7 recall at Hudson Foods. We think that recall shows that USDA has more than enough authority (and power) to require the recall of adulterated products. It is NMA's view that there are other responses which could be far more effective in protecting the public health against pathogens in food than increasing the power of the regulators.

The recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef by Hudson Foods, produced in its state-of-the-art processing facility located in Columbus, Nebraska is the largest recall in the history of the meat industry. Based upon the facts known about the Hudson recall, National Meat Association can only conclude that something is very, very wrong about the entire episode. The facility is one of the newest and considered one of the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art in the industry. It was under USDA/FSIS supervision pursuant to the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Because of the types of customers it serviced, it was also subjected to review audits by professionals retained by its major customers specifically for the purpose of meeting the highest possible industry standards.

National Meat Association believes that the agency failed to take rapid action to trace back the outside sources which were identified as the potential sources of this bacteria. It was only on September 15, more than three weeks after the total recall and plant closure, that the agency began its follow up visits to Hudson Foods' beef suppliers.

In the interim, the agency has directed very little attention to alerting consumers about the proper techniques for the home preparation of frozen patties. Frozen patties, which were at issue in this recall, are carefully handled by restaurants using computer-developed cooking schedules. As part of its public education outreach, FSIS has an obligation to provide much more information to consumers about the extra precautions that are needed to ensure that frozen ground meat and poultry, which may be charred on the outside, are not still frozen or cold on the inside, and that the cooking techniques for frozen products are different than those for fresh, chilled product.

What we see with Hudson is not an agency lacking authority to recall or to penalize and therefore needing more legislation. We see an agency that had more than adequate authority to require and obtain the recall of 25 million pounds of product. We believe that the Hudson incident shows there are authorities which USDA ought to use more boldly: The first line of defense against E.coli O157:H7 and other pathogens in the food supply has to be the implementation of prevention-oriented HACCP programs. The largest firms, that are required by the Pathogen Reduction; HACCP regulations finalized last year to implement HACCP on January 28, 1998, have already implemented plans but USDA has just started training trainers who will then train inspectors on what is popularly known as a "just in time" training schedule. National Meat Association long urged "cooperative" training of industry and inspectors. We think it is very unfortunate that this was not USDA's policy.

Microbiological testing has an important and useful place in HACCP for validation, verification and trend analysis. It can only be maximized for the benefit of consumers when there is a cooperative understanding about the way it works by both inspectors and industry through cooperative training. Unfortunately, this has not occurred. USDA should plan to cooperate on training with the inspected industry.

Testing for E.coli O157:H7 in end products that are ready to move into the market has no sound statistical basis. It would require running 2000 to 3000 samples to give 95% statistical confidence that a 40,000 pound lot is free of this pathogen. FSIS should revise its lot testing procedures and conduct lot tests only when the product can be held until a test result is available without compromising shelf life or microbiological quality. FSIS needs to define test lots precisely and maintain those definitions. FSIS has changed operating definitions for lots without providing notice to the industry about the changes or their justification. This is unacceptable.

Finally, FSIS should provide incentives for packers who conduct their own microbiological testing, recognize a packer's lot testing results obtained by any commercially recognized method, and defer to those results as being representative of the lot. FSIS' elimination of its accreditation program for microbiological laboratories in 1996, despite industry requests to the contrary, has removed a valuable resource for this essential capability.

The legislation under consideration here would replace voluntary "recalls" with "mandatory" recalls. "Voluntary" recalls are a misnomer. It is not a voluntary decision whether a packer will recall or not, because that is a decision which is compelled by the enforcement power of FSIS. A better term is "Cooperative Recall." The Cooperative Recall system has worked. It is a system where the recalling company and the agency work together to evaluate the product and the risk and recover that product.

Recalls are "mandatory" now, and the risk of the proposals that are being considered is that they would make recalls "adversarial." Cooperative recalls are consistent with the direction in which the agency is moving on HACCP. The idea behind HACCP is that the agency monitors and oversees that the company's performance and the company's recordkeeping are adequate. If the company's performance and recordkeeping are not adequate, the agency has the enforcement authority to make sure that the company gets on track. That basic HACCP pattern has worked with recalls, and it has worked well. If we move to an adversarial command and control recall system, there will inevitably be adversarial disputes between the department and companies regarding what product is subject to recall. USDA will be identifying the product, and if USDA is over-inclusive, that will lead to litigation and recrimination, things which are rare with cooperative recalls.

Cooperative recalls have worked: The cooperative system is consistent with HACCP and the cooperative system has resulted in rapid notice and rapid recovery of product. If we move to an adversarial program that is based on additional "mandatory" authority, the result could be to turn recalls into adversarial proceedings, with all that implies for slowing things down and making recalls litigious. With the Hudson recall, National Meat Association feels the agency showed that it had more than enough authority to recall 25 million pounds and cause the company to close.

National Meat Association's recommendation is that HACCP is the first line of defense in the entire food supply, and will become a working reality in the meat and poultry inspection program beginning next January; further, National Meat Association believes that, in future recalls, there should be more attention to evaluation of risk, to identification of bacterial sources, and finally, to ensuring that the public information will help American consumers to protect their homes and their families, and not just scare them from eating meat and poultry.

Ultimately, the big issue is how to eliminate pathogens, not how to increase agency power.

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Jeremy Russell
National Meat Association
(510) 763-1533
[email protected]

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