WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department does not need additional authority to conduct meat recalls and would oppose any move to make the removal of such items from the market mandatory, the USDA’s top meat safety official told lawmakers on Wednesday.
A series of large recalls in the last few months, attributed mostly to E. coli O157:H7, prompted USDA earlier this year to expand testing and recall infected meat more rapidly to combat the pathogen. This year alone 19 recalls related to E. coli in beef have occurred, compared to just eight in 2006.
USDA regulates about 20 percent of the food supply — covering eggs, meat and poultry. The Food and Drug Administration covers the rest.
“I think we do a very good job with recalls at this point at time,” U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond told a House Agriculture subcommittee on livestock, dairy, and poultry. “I believe we have all the legal authority we need to do our job,” he said.
Currently, the industry initiates recalls voluntarily. Raymond said the current process works and any move by lawmakers to make recalls mandatory was unnecessary and risks causing the system to work less efficiently.
Raymond said there are several factors USDA is investigating that could be responsible for the uptick in E. coli discoveries.
Among them include the pathogen becoming resistant to drugs and changes in weather or diet that can lead to stress in the animal. He assured lawmakers it was not because companies are being careless or inspectors sloppy in their work.
“I think it’s starting with the animal’s environment,” said Raymond. “There is a change in what we feed cattle and I don’t know if that has created a problem.”
In October, U.S. food safety inspectors issued a series of initiatives to combat E. coli contamination of meat products. The actions follow an announcement in July that it increased the number of tests of ground beef by more than 75 percent.
Starting this month, all beef plants must be able to verify they are effectively controlling E. coli during slaughter and processing. And in 2008, FSIS will test plants that handle a larger volume of beef, and those with recent positive tests more frequently than in the past.
“This is not a witch hunt or a time to point fingers,” said Leonard Boswell, an Iowa Democrat who heads the House Agriculture subcommittee. “There are many questions that need to be asked about why we are seeing these increases and what USDA is doing in response.”
The meat industry has been hit hard by several recalls in recent months, including one by Topps Meat Co LLC that ranked as the fifth-largest meat or poultry recall in U.S. history. Topps, once the biggest U.S. manufacturer of frozen hamburgers has since gone out of business, recalled 21.7 million pounds (9.8 million kg) of ground beef after a string of E. coli-related illnesses.
Agricultural giant Cargill Inc on Saturday recalled more than 1 million pounds of ground beef because of possible E. coli. contamination. It was the second meat recall by the Minneapolis-based company in a month.