OAKLAND, CA – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) doesn’t want you to know that National Meat Association and other concerned groups worked hard to make a level playing field, with fair and effective testing procedures that assure better food safety for all meat eating Americans.

Harkin is proposing legislation that would overturn a decision by a Federal District Court in Texas, affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. This legislation authorizes USDA to close down businesses based on microbiological standards that measure neither product adulteration nor sanitation deficiencies. The legislation would allow USDA to hold processors responsible for events outside of their control.

NMA and four other industry groups joined the Texas litigation as amici, because they had known for a long time that USDA’s Salmonella Performance Standard was scientifically flawed and was being implemented unfairly. They argued against USDA’s end product testing methodology, which punished grinders for contamination that had occurred at other plants.

Congress has granted USDA strong authorities to take action against adulterated meat and poultry products and to assure that establishments produce those products under sanitary conditions. The recent court decision does not undermine USDA’s authority. In fact, the District Court specifically addressed this concern stating:

“What the court takes issue with today is not the use of scientific methods in USDA inspections but the agency’s science-based testing of a processor’s product to evaluate the conditions of its plant. There is no reason to suppose that Section 601(m)(4) would not allow science-based tests, as long as those tests truly evaluate sanitary conditions in a processing plant. And, science-based tests of a plant’s end product may be appropriate when the USDA is determining whether a plant’s meat is adulterated under the several other definitions of “adulterated” provided by Section 601 (m).”

The Texas decision bars USDA only from using the Salmonella Performance Standards to put companies out of business. In doing this, the court provided a succinct explanation of the limitations of the USDA performance standards:

“Because the USDA’s performance standards and Salmonella tests do not necessarily evaluate the conditions of a meat processor’s establishment, they cannot serve as the basis for finding a plant’s meat adulterated under Section 601(m)(4). …The USDA’s Salmonella tests … inspect a processor’s end product to determine whether its plant’s conditions are sanitary. The flaw in such tests is that the presence of Salmonella is not solely – or even substantially – dependent upon the sanitation in a grinder’s establishment.”

From a policy perspective, the FSIS Salmonella Performance Standard was seriously flawed. While there is strong support for better procedures to minimize a pathogen such as Salmonella on raw meat, even with the best controls there is no way, short of using irradiation, to guarantee pathogen-free product. Statistically some level of Salmonella will remain, and it is statistically inevitable that some processors will fail three successive test series. At the District Court hearing in Dallas in December, 1999, the Administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) testified there was no evidence of insanitation at Supreme’s beef grinding plant. To withdraw inspection based on a statistical inevitability is just Russian roulette.

The USDA and consumer amicus position was that beef grinding plants should cut off suppliers whom they find are supplying already USDA-inspected meat which contains Salmonella. In fact, ground beef processors will try to select the best available suppliers. But the government/activist argument seemed to turn the whole inspection program on its head. Should USDA, which inspects both slaughter and processing plants, enforce Salmonella performance standards primarily at beef grinding plants, so that the grinding plants will enforce Salmonella standards on the USDA inspected slaughter plants? Instead of giving first priority to preventing Salmonella at the slaughter plants, the USDA/activist position focused on punishing the processor, rather than preventing the contamination where it starts.

NMA’s position throughout the litigation is to support microbiological testing at a point in the system where it can effectively reduce the prevalence of pathogenic organisms. “The best place for micro-tests is at the slaughterhouse,” says NMA Executive Director Rosemary Mucklow, “where pathogen reduction intervention occurs.”

In its decision, the court specifically affirmed USDA’s ability to use “science-based tests, as long as those tests truly evaluate sanitary conditions in a processing plant.” The Texas decision has strengthened USDA’s ability to use its performance standards, by excluding the use of such tests in circumstances where they do not evaluate plant sanitation.

“USDA shall continue to enforce all applicable statutes and regulations, including compliance with the Pathogen Reduction/HACCP rule,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano in a December 11, 2001 statement about the case. “We will continue to work with all interested parties in our commitment to ensure a safe food supply for all Americans,” she added.

Like USDA, NMA is trying to make the system work for consumers, but Senator Harkin and those groups who acted as amici on behalf of USDA in the Supreme case, have refused to meet with NMA to discuss its position. “It’s frustrating trying to move forward on something as important as meat safety when a whole segment of the debate won’t even sit down to discuss the issues,” says Mucklow. “But we have faith that consumers, when finally given the facts of the case, will recognize that Harkin’s proposed legislation will not make meat any safer.”

National Meat Association is a non-profit trade association representing meat packers and processors, as well as equipment manufacturers and suppliers who provide services to the meat industry. The association, with over 600 members throughout the United States, includes membership in Canada, Australia and Mexico.

Online resources:
Decision of the Texas District Court
Decision of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals
Statement of Under Secretary for Food Safety

Letter to the Editor of the New York Times

February 16, 2002
To Prevent Salmonella
To the Editor:

Re “Movement on Meat Safety” (editorial, Feb. 9): As a party in the recent federal appeals court decision regarding salmonella and meat inspection, the National Meat Association disagrees with your statement that the decision "weakened the government's ability to combat bacterial contamination at the nation's meat plants."

Our association has advocated that priority for salmonella testing should be at the slaughterhouse, where salmonella can best be controlled and, if found, traced back to its source.

The previous administration emphasized punishing processors rather than preventing contamination. In the 15 months ending March 31, 2001, the Agriculture Department took more than 33,000 salmonella tests at beef grinders, but only a little more than 4,000 at slaughterhouses.

The bill proposed by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa would simply codify this punitive approach, rather than focus on early prevention and public health.

Executive Director
National Meat Association
Oakland, Calif., Feb. 11, 2002

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

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