USDA URGED TO ALTER E. COLI PROGRAM

WASHINGTON -- A Nov. 24 recall of 359,000 pounds of ground beef -- involving four states and three retailers -- may have been unnecessary and should not have proceeded without irrefutable test evidence, stated a coalition of food groups in a letter to Dan Glickman, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.The organizations cited the incident in again calling on Glickman "to undertake an immediate

WASHINGTON -- A Nov. 24 recall of 359,000 pounds of ground beef -- involving four states and three retailers -- may have been unnecessary and should not have proceeded without irrefutable test evidence, stated a coalition of food groups in a letter to Dan Glickman, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The organizations cited the incident in again calling on Glickman "to undertake an immediate and comprehensive review of USDA's procedures for the detection of E. coli 0157:H7.

"Regardless of the ultimate resolution of [this] issue, it is a living, breathing example of why the USDA policy is a bankrupt policy for trying to deal with this particular strain of E. coli," said Timothy M. Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute, based here, one of the groups that signed the letter.

A representative at the USDA was not available for comment.

Other organizations that signed the letter include the American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Food Processors Association, National Meat Association, North American Meat Processors Association, Eastern Meat Packers Association and Colorado Boxed Beef Co.

The event in question involved a recall of ground beef, after a survey sample taken from a Florida store reportedly tested positive for E. coli.

The coalition charges that, in a presumptive move, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a recall based on a phone conference with Florida officials, during which the testing procedures were discussed and affirmed by FSIS representatives.

As the recall was under way, however, Florida officials again contacted the FSIS and said that they were unable to confirm the original positive results.

According to the chronology outlined in the letter, the state laboratory notified the FSIS that "attempts to reconfirm the original results of E. coli 0157:H7 testing on [the sample] have been unsuccessful," and, therefore, it would not be reported as positive. Additionally, state officials were "not proceeding with any further action," it was said.

The coalition is hoping the incident will motivate the USDA to adopt a new E. coli sampling program that would detect contamination much earlier in the distribution system.

The current system relies too much on samples taken from beef that is already in stores, said Hammonds.

"It offers no opportunity to prevent consumers from eating dangerous product," he said, adding that such "high-profile, public" recalls erode consumer confidence in the food industry and leave no room for mistakes. "There's no way to undo [the damage]."