BILLINGS, Mont. — R-CALF USA, a nonprofit organization representing cattle producers nationally, has announced its support for a proposal that would trace back E. coli- or salmonella-contaminated beef to its source of contamination, which R-CALF officials say is in most instances likely to be the place of slaughter.
There, the proposal calls for corrective action that would ensure that the problem will be dealt with in a way that would eliminate or limit the breadth of a necessary recall.
“The recent recalls, including the largest one ever, in California [even though that recall it did not involve E. coli or salmonella], have been caused by lack of enforcement in the meat industry. That's why we've asked Congress to intervene in this situation,” R-CALF USA's chief executive officer, Bill Bullard, told SN last week.
“We need Congress to reform an obviously failed system of self-inspection under the HACCP [FDA's Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point] program.”
Bullard went on to describe some of the ramifications he said are caused by the current system. “What appears to happen under this failed system is that the small- to medium-sized packers are the ones that feel the brunt, and we see them exit the industry,” he said. “[Cattle producers] need more, not less, packers to sell their cattle to.”
In letters sent to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., late last month, officials at R-CALF USA said the organization supports the proposed Traceback Bill, written by John Munsell, manager of the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, Miles City, Mont.
The letters also ask that the U.S. legislators introduce the proposed bill in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
Munsell, who formerly owned and operated a relatively small destination processing plant in Miles City, told SN he has worked closely with Sen. Baucus's office.
The proposed bill, Munsell said, has been put on the back burner until after the 2008 Farm Bill gets passed.
Bullard agreed. “Right now, the Ag Committee is consumed with the Farm Bill. We hope as soon as it is resolved that this [Traceback Bill] will be introduced and passed in order to give us needed reforms,” he said.
Recalls of ground beef contaminated with E. coli numbered 20 last year, nearly matching a record 21 recalls in both 2002 and 2004. That has been an important factor in mobilizing R-CALF to throw its support behind the proposed Traceback Bill, R-CALF USA President/Region VI Director Max Thornsberry, a Missouri veterinarian, said in letters to the U.S. lawmakers.
“Subsequent news media reports show that consumers' confidence has been shaken, which could reduce consumer demand for our beef products.
“R-CALF USA is concerned,” Thornsberry said, “that recalls will continue to occur until USDA forces the slaughter plants, which are the origin of E.coli and salmonella-contaminated meat, to implement effective corrective actions.
“R-CALF USA firmly believes that USDA enforcement actions must be directed toward plants that are the source of contamination, not at downstream facilities, which are merely the destination of previously contaminated meat,” he continued.”
The organization's member-approved policy asserts that the current HACCP form of meat inspection “has failed to protect the consuming public and thereby hurts beef demand.”
The policy calls for an immediate reform of HACCP to “return to a ‘hands-on’ method of inspection rather than HACCP's ‘hands-off’ type of non-inspection,” as well as calling for tracebacks of meat products to slaughtering plants, as would be achieved by the Traceback Bill proposal.
Other cattlemen's associations, including the Montana Stockgrowers and the Montana Cattlemen Association, individually support the proposed bill, and Munsell said he's currently negotiating with other groups to support it.
Although they were contacted as well, other industry groups declined to comment at this time because they said there has not been time to fully review the proposal.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, however, did comment via their director of public affairs, Karen Batra.
“We have policy in place for tracing back for animal health purposes, such as for BSE,” Batra said.
“It is difficult, however, to use traceback to determine the origin of the source of foodborne pathogen contamination. It could be at the plant, the retail level or consumer level.”
Batra said NCBA believes preventative action is most effective.
The contention, however, on the part of those who support the proposed Traceback Bill is that plant safeguards are not adequately enforced, and that reforms are necessary at the slaughterhouse level to ensure that they are.
“If passed, the Traceback Bill proposal would require USDA to trace back to the plant of pathogen contamination, and force noncompliant plants to change production practices to reduce the likelihood of shipping contaminated meat into commerce,” R-CALF's Thornsberry said.