Letter to President George W. Bush

March 14, 2002


President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Re: Take Action to Make Our Meat Supply Safer

Dear Mr. President:

     Even as bioterrorism concerns highlight weaknesses in our existing food-safety programs, key initiatives designed to ensure the safety of meat are languishing and existing safeguards are being eroded. The undersigned groups represent millions of consumers and thousands of health professionals. We believe that without strong action by your Administration, the lives of thousands of Americans, along with the safety of the meat supply and consumer confidence in government programs, are in jeopardy. We respectfully urge you to support a comprehensive program of food-safety protections at this critical time to combat the devastation thousands of American families suffer each year because of deadly hazards in the food supply. To this end, we offer the following policy recommendations:

      We urge you to support the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act of 2002, introduced today by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). A recent decision in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Supreme Beef v. USDA, concluded that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) did not have authority to close ground beef plants that fail to meet government standards for Salmonella contamination. This decision removes an important enforcement tool to close down ground beef plants that repeatedly violate government Salmonella limits and leaves USDA without the ability to take prompt action when they know that a plant is producing excessive amounts of contaminated meat. Senator Harkin’s important legislation would restore that enforcement authority and also would provide clear authority for USDA to set pathogen-reduction standards for other hazards in the meat supply. Without that legislation, USDA inspectors are forced to apply the USDA seal of approval to meat even if it is produced in a plant that continually exceeds the USDA Salmonella standard.

      We urge you to direct USDA to make full and immediate disclosure of Salmonella test results for 2001. USDA has said that it will continue Salmonella testing in meat and poultry plants, despite its inability to take enforcement action. However, the USDA has failed even to disclose the results of last year’s testing. The public has a right to know exactly how the industry is performing, including the names of plants doing a good job controlling microbial contamination as well as the plants that are doing poorly.

      We urge you to direct USDA to finalize its rule requiring ready-to-eat meat and poultry producers to test their plants and products for potentially deadly Listeria monocytogenes bacteria before consumers suffer another food-poisoning outbreak. More than three long years have passed since meats produced by the Sara Lee Company caused a food poisoning outbreak that sickened 100 people and killed 21. Consumers are still waiting for USDA to require meat and poultry processors that produce ready-to-eat products like deli meats, hot dogs, and pates to test their plants and products for potentially deadly bacteria. Last February, USDA proposed a regulation to require that testing, but it has become bottled up in the bureaucracy. Please insist that USDA finalize that rule.

      We urge you to direct USDA to start testing for the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria on beef carcasses as well as in ground beef. Since you took office, there have been nearly 30 recalls of ground beef due to contamination with the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 and more than 73,000 have suffered life-threatening illnesses from E. coli poisoning. Industry testing has shown that companies can significantly reduce that hazard during the slaughter process. Reducing E. coli O157:H7 in the slaughter plant is a critically needed public-health step and requiring beef plants to test carcasses will document that they are effectively controlling that hazard.

      The Administration should reverse course on the HACCP Inspection Models Project (HIMP) and instead strengthen the current USDA inspection program, including more microbial testing. In 1997, USDA developed HIMP to reduce the number of government inspectors in poultry and meat plants. However, the General Accounting Office issued a report last December saying that that pilot program was highly flawed. Despite this report, USDA has announced plans to expand the discredited HIMP program.

     Unsafe food causes an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths each year, despite the fact that the taxpayers invest more than a billion dollars annually in federal food safety inspection programs. We need your help to make these programs more effective and to restore Americans’ confidence in USDA’s inspection seal. Otherwise, consumers will continue to pay a terrible price as contaminated food claims the health and lives of family members and causes billions of dollars in medical expenses.

     Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to working with you and your Administration to improve the safety of our food supply and protect our families.

Sincerely,

 

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest
 
Nancy Donley
President
Safe Tables Our Priority
 
Mark Silbergeld
Co-Director, Washington Office
Consumers Union
 
Richard Gamber
Michigan Consumer Federation
 
Bradley G. Dakake
Consumer Advocate
Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group
 
Cheryl Hystad
Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition
 
Donna Rosenbaum
CEO
Food Safety Partners, Ltd.
Carol Tucker Foreman
Director, Food Policy Institute
Consumer Federation of America
 
Mohammad N. Akhter, MD, MPH
Executive Director
American Public Health Association
 
Linda Golodner
Executive Director
National Consumers League
 
Mark Ferrulo
Director Florida Public Interest Research Group
 
Irene C. Leech
President
Virginia Citizens Consumer Council
 
Gerald J. Thain
Board of Directors
Center for Public Representation
 
Shirley Williams-McClain
Executive Director
North Carolina Hunger Network

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