July 25, 2002
Watchdog Groups Call for Congressional Investigation Into ConAgra Meat Recall and USDA Food Safety Policies
E-mails Show That USDA Had Been Warned of E. Coli at Plant
WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project today called for a congressional investigation into the events that led to the recall of 19 million pounds of meat processed by ConAgra at its Greeley, Colo., plant and into the manner in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has implemented a new meat inspection program.
The groups cited extensive e-mail evidence showing that top USDA officials were told in February that E. coli-contaminated meat was being produced at the ConAgra plant, but those officials chose to ignore the warnings. The USDA and ConAgra negotiated a voluntary recall on June 30 and another, much larger recall last week. The groups called for the investigation in letters to the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture committees and the House Government Reform and Senate Government Affairs committees. The letter went to Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), and Reps. Larry Combest (R-Texas) and Dan Burton (R-Ind.).
“It?s time for the Congress to take a good, hard look into USDA food safety policies and how they are implemented,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The ConAgra recall is not an aberration. It is another example of a food safety system that is teetering on the brink of collapse.”
The groups criticized the way the USDA is implementing its Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, in which meat plants are responsible for the inspection process and for determining where in their production system hazards are most likely to occur and controlling them. Government inspectors have little authority to require corrective action when they see a problem.
The e-mail evidence shows that earlier this year, USDA inspectors determined through documentation and microbial testing that the Greeley plant was the likely source of contamination found at a much smaller meat processing plant. USDA?s top brass not only ignored the inspectors? recommendations that the agency take action, but also chastised them for documenting their conclusions.
“Unfortunately, it?s a complaint we have heard all too often from our whistleblowers,” said Felicia Nestor, food safety project director for the Government Accountability Project. “Like a collective recurring nightmare, the inspectors find problems, call Washington for help and then must stand silently by as administrators allow problem plants to operate without interruption. Commenters who blame the inspectors for inaction are really missing the mark on who really wields the authority at USDA.”
The two groups stated in their letter that they were supporters of the HACCP when first introduced because it was designed to add scientific testing to the food safety inspection system. In practice, both internal and external examinations of the implementation of HAACP by USDA have discovered major flaws.
An investigation conducted in 2000 by the USDA?s inspector general concluded that the public?s health was being jeopardized by the manner in which HAACP was being implemented. Just recently, a draft report by Congress? own investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, severely criticized the USDA for its implementation of HAACP.
In addition, GAP and Public Citizen have found that the USDA is not enforcing its own pathogen performance standards for the meat industry and is permitting meat processors who continually fail those performance standards to continue to operate. The findings were detailed in a report issued in May called Hamburger Hell: The Flip Side of USDA?s Salmonella Testing Program.
“It?s not good enough to say that your food safety system is based on science when you don?t use it,” said Hauter.
Click here to see a copy of the letter.
Click here to read the e-mail evidence.