August 12, 2008 / 9:43 PM / 10 years ago

Regulation will not curtail risks to food: Schafer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After several meat recalls this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not see passing new regulations as a solution to curtail risks to food, Secretary Ed Schafer told Reuters on Tuesday.

Despite headlines that question the safety of U.S. food supply, including the recall of a record 143 million lbs (65 million kilograms) of meat in February and last week’s recall of beef suspected of E. coli contamination sold by Whole Foods, the number of contaminated products has declined in recent years, said Schafer.

“I don’t believe that, from a USDA standpoint, we need to increase the number of inspectors or change the testing requirements,” Schafer told Reuters.

He noted the many innovative ways the industry has stepped up to control bacteria in its facilities, from using 87,000 lbs of water pressure to kill bacteria to using black light to detect contamination.

“If the requirement is for a bacteria-free product going out the door, then how they get there to me isn’t as important,” he said. “I’d like to see them experimenting with new and better equipment and ideas. You start mandating things, and that incentive to improve goes away.”

Overall, Schafer said he is “pleased” with what industry is doing to reduce health risks. A USDA spokesman said less than half a percent of samples have E. coli.

Satisfied with USDA’s requirements for food safety procedures and testing, he opposed calls for mandatory recall authority.

Legislation proposed would require hearings, comment periods and paperwork that would delay when a mandatory recall could be enforced.

“I think you do a faster, better job without a mandatory recall,” Schafer said.

A new USDA plan would list retail stores that receive tainted products linked to recalls only when there is a good chance a person will become ill or die by consuming the meat or poultry product, so-called Class I recalls.

Critics see USDA’s proposed rule as inadequate because it does not cover all recalls, such as February’s recall which stemmed from the mistreatment of animals rather than contamination so posed low risk to consumers.

Schafer stands by his decision to exclude other recalls as a method of curtailing “undue and unnecessary alarm in the marketplace,” adding that other recalls pose little to no risk to consumers.

Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Marguerita Choy

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