Thursday, December 19, 2013

Studies find USDA has 'serious weakness' in poultry inspection measures, needs recall authority

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's meat inspection process is seriously flawed , according to the Pew Charitable Trusts and Consumer Reports, Kimberly Kindy and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post. At least 523 people have been reported as having been sickened with salmonella because of tainted chicken linked to Foster Farms. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that since many cases go unreported, "as many as 15,000 people could have been sickened by the contaminated meat." (CDC map: The agency says the official number of people infected with salmonella is 389, in 23 states and Puerto Rico)
The Pew study said the salmonella outbreak shows "serious weaknesses" in USDA's "oversight of poultry plants" and "criticized the government’s failure to push more aggressively for recalls of contaminated meat," the Post reports. Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s Food Safety Campaign, told the Post, “When more than 500 people get sick from a food-borne illness outbreak, that means the system we have in place wasn’t working to protect public health. This many people should not be getting sick.”

The study "includes sharp criticisms of the response by the (USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service) to the outbreaks, which it called 'insufficient to protect public health'," the Post reports. "In both cases, the department never asked Foster Farms to recall or stop shipping potentially contaminated chicken. The study also faults the department for failing to issue a public-health alert for the first outbreak, which lasted from June 2012 to April 2013. An alert was issued for the second outbreak, which began this March."

The Consumer Reports study, funded by Pew, "suggested that those lapses have contributed to the prevalence of potentially harmful bacteria that lurk in store-bought chicken," the Post writes. "The magazine independently tested more than 300 raw chicken breasts purchased from stores across the country and found that every major brand contained 'worrisome amounts' of pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli, including some strains resistant to treatment with antibiotics."

They found that "more than half the chicken breasts it tested were tainted with fecal contaminants, which can cause problems such as urinary tract infections in humans," the Post notes. "Half the samples contained at least one multidrug-resistant bacterium. In addition, researchers found no significant difference in the presence of troublesome bacteria between conventional chicken breasts and those labeled 'organic' or 'no antibiotics'."

Both studies "called for USDA to be more aggressive in pushing for recalls and alerting the public to potential outbreaks," the Post reports. "The groups said Congress should pass legislation to give the USDA mandatory recall authority. Currently, the department can put pressure on companies to recall products but, unlike the Food and Drug Administration, cannot force recalls." (Read more)

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