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Legislation targets adulteration ambiguity in foodborne outbreaks

By Joe Whitworth+

26-Jun-2014

The Pathogens Reduction and Testing Reform Act tries to clear up the definition of adulteration
The Pathogens Reduction and Testing Reform Act tries to clear up the definition of adulteration

A bill introduced by two US Congresswomen aims to give the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) clear authority to keep pathogens out of the meat and poultry supply chain.

Rosa DeLauro and Louise M. Slaughter introduced the Pathogens Reduction and Testing Reform Act in the House of Representatives.

The bill would require USDA to recall any meat, poultry, or egg product contaminated by pathogens associated with serious illness or death or that are resistant to two or more critically important antibiotics for human medicine.

Defining adulteration

As it stands USDA only issues a recall if a meat, poultry, or egg product is considered “adulterated” – a term that is ambiguously defined in current law, said the Congresswomen.

Because of this, USDA claims they do not have the authority to issue recalls for the products.

The USDA has failed to recall meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens because they do not believe they have the legal authority to do so. This bill would ensure there is no confusion,” said Representatives DeLauro and Slaughter.

“We urge Congress to pass this legislation before more Americans are sickened by contaminated meat, poultry, or egg products. We need federal agencies that will protect public health, not bend to the threats of deep-pocketed food producers seeking to escape regulation.”

It will amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act to provide that meat, poultry, and egg products containing certain pathogens or contaminants are adulterated, and for other purposes.

Backing for legislation

Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch said the bill would bring inspection laws into the 21st century.

“This is an important piece of legislation that strengthens the Federal Meat Inspection, Egg Products Inspection, and Poultry Products Inspection Acts.

“There have been ill-conceived proposals to deregulate inspection at USDA while at the same time there has been no effort to give USDA inspectors the necessary regulatory tools to prevent contaminated products from reaching our dinner tables.”

Foster Farms outbreak

According to a May 22 update by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the multistate outbreak of multidrug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg infections linked to Foster Farms brand chicken has sickened 574 people.

Seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 27 states and Puerto Rico, since March 1, 2013.

37% of ill persons were hospitalized but no deaths have been reported.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) food safety director, said the USDA has the responsibility to make sure meat and poultry processors are held accountable for producing safe products.

“So consumers may be surprised to learn these businesses can legally market chicken and meat carrying antibiotic-resistant Salmonella even when those contaminated products are clearly making people sick.

“CSPI believes USDA could act now to declare dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella to be adulterants. But since the agency claims it doesn't have that authority, the Pathogen Reduction and Testing Reform Act introduced today would remove any shadow of a doubt, and keep these particularly dangerous strains of bacteria out of the food supply.”

Past pathogen moments

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) highlighted past E.coli and Listeria outbreaks that set standards.

Chris Waldrop, from CFA, gave the example of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak which sickened over 700 people that ensured that if pathogen was found in ground beef the product would be recalled.

He also said an outbreak involving Listeria in ready-to-eat food products like deli meats meant that if it was found in those types of products, they would need to be recalled.

“Now we have another large scale outbreak – this time linked to antibiotic resistant Salmonella in raw poultry - that has sickened over 600 consumers. Yet this time, USDA is not taking the strong action necessary to say that Salmonella should not be in our poultry products.

“Consumers are shocked to learn that it is currently perfectly legal for companies to sell meat and poultry that is contaminated with pathogens like Salmonella or Campylobacter. This is not a preventive approach to food safety. And this is something we should not tolerate.”

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