BEEF SCARE SPURS USDA TO CONSIDER STRICTER RULES

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The recent food-safety scare involving meat from Hudson Foods, Rogers, Ark., has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture here to dust off old legislation officials say would strengthen enforcement power over meat and poultry processors by allowing them to mandate recalls and levy stiff fines.Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman plans to ask Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to introduce

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The recent food-safety scare involving meat from Hudson Foods, Rogers, Ark., has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture here to dust off old legislation officials say would strengthen enforcement power over meat and poultry processors by allowing them to mandate recalls and levy stiff fines.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman plans to ask Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to introduce the legislation, which is similar to bills the senator proposed in 1994 and 1995. In a separate announcement, Food and Drug Administration officials said they plan to seek similar powers from Congress regarding seafood, produce and other nonmeat food that is fresh or processed.

Glickman said the recent Hudson hamburger-contamination scare should rally congressional support for more authority. Specifically, Glickman wants Congress to grant the USDA the authority to recall adulterated or misbranded meat and poultry in situations deemed to pose a public health threat and impose civil monetary penalties for violations of federal meat and poultry laws. Leahy's original bills called for $100,000 fines for each violation.

Although recalls are now considered voluntary, neither the USDA nor the FDA is entirely powerless to act on contamination scares. The agencies have the ability to seize product they deem contaminated. They can also withhold federal inspection of a processing plant, which in effect shuts the business down -- a power that Glickman also wants expanded under the legislation.

Nevertheless, Glickman argues the government's enforcement powers over food are stymied by the lack of recall power and the inability to levy fines.

"Under this law we will still give industry the opportunity to make the recall voluntarily," Glickman said. "In those circumstances where they refuse, we can order the recall and that is critical. We don't have time for a protracted debate over how much product should be recalled. We don't have time for a snail's-pace procedure to stop a plant's production until they clean up their act."

The ideas of giving the USDA power to levy fines and recall meat were originally included in the landmark Pathogen Reduction Act of 1994, which went into effect Jan. 1. These provisions, which met with industry opposition, were left out of the final plan, which is considered to be one of the most sweeping food-safety plans ever enacted.

Under the act, all meat and poultry producers are required to undertake various slaughter and processing reforms, including the implementation of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point programs. HACCP inspection systems are based on testing for contaminants and taking preventative food-safety steps at specified junctures in processing.

Industry officials are opposed to granting the USDA broad recall power, fearing it would be used indiscriminately in suspected cases of food contamination where a source hasn't been identified.

Sara Lilygren, senior vice president for legislative and public affairs at the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., said the USDA already has sufficient power over the meat industry, as shown by the Hudson Foods recall. In addition, she said there's never been a case when a company has turned away a USDA recall request. Regarding civil penalties, she said the USDA already holds economic sway over the industry through by inspectors -- who are in processing plants daily -- having the power to shut down production lines when they detect potential food-safety problems.

"The proposals won't have any impact on consumer protection," Lilygren said. Broader USDA powers also run counter to the agency's direction enforcement policy through HACCP, where companies and government are working closely to improve monitoring.

"We've tried to work with USDA to move the whole inspection program from a command and control program to a program that monitors industry practices to make sure they're safe," she said. "Giving USDA the authority to dictate product recalls certainly puts us back in the command and control mode."

Officials at the Grocery Manufacturers of America here are also weighing in against expanding government powers over food regulation. "Additional legislation and bureaucracy are neither necessary nor useful. Instead of promoting food fear, the government should protect the public and build food confidence by enforcing the existing rules and more effectively encouraging proper food handling throughout the food chain," said Stephen Ziller, the GMA's vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs.