GROUPS FIGHT MANDATORY RECALL AUTHORITY

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- While backing proposals that the government approve bacteria-destroying irradiation for beef, food industry officials told a Senate panel that a plan seeking mandatory recall authority by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was unwarranted.In testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee, representatives of the National Food Processors Association, the American Meat Institute,

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- While backing proposals that the government approve bacteria-destroying irradiation for beef, food industry officials told a Senate panel that a plan seeking mandatory recall authority by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was unwarranted.

In testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee, representatives of the National Food Processors Association, the American Meat Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the National Broiler Council and the National Turkey Federation talked about the need to educate the public on safe-cooking techniques, the benefits of irradiation and their opposition to expanding USDA recall authority.

The industry was responding to a proposal put forth by Senate Democrats, identical to an administration plan, which would give the USDA authority to mandate recalls of contaminated or mislabeled meat or poultry. The recall plan does not enjoy the backing of panel Republicans, however.

The measure, dubbed the Food Safety Enforcement Enhancement Act of 1997, also would permit the USDA to enforce new science-based inspection techniques to improve food safety. It would also permit the USDA to levy civil penalties on processors not meeting safety standards, which could run as high as $100,000 a day.

The bill also requires anyone in the supply chain -- from the slaughterhouse to the retail store to restaurants -- to notify the USDA if there is a reasonable basis for knowing that meat or poultry is contaminated or mislabeled.

Sponsors of the measure are Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; and Tim Johnson, D-S.D. The absence of any Republican sponsors indicates the measure likely won't see any action this year. Past efforts by Democrats to toughen the USDA's recall authority have failed.

Insisting that additional recall authority is not needed, Gary Jay Kushner, an attorney testifying on behalf of the industry group, said, "To take away a company's limited right to discuss with the agency the scope and depth of its recall would likely lead to less coordination and more litigation."

Kushner also charged that the proposed $100,000 daily fines could be levied if companies don't follow recall orders or inspection directives "to the letter."

Greg Page, president of the Red Meat Group at Cargill, Minneapolis, also testified on behalf of the industry groups that public education should state that only the final food preparer can eliminate many risks of contaminated or unsafe foods.

Meat irradiation is one way to eliminate E. coli 0157:H7, testified Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Dan Glickman, USDA Secretary, told the panel that the federal government likely will approve irradiation for beef because the Food and Drug Administration is nearly finished reviewing a three-year-old petition allowing irradiation.