New Law Would Give USDA Authority To Recall Contaminated Meat & Eggs

The current, vague laws regarding what constitutes “adulterated” meat, poultry or eggs have hamstrung the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, leaving the agency unsure whether it has the authority to recall food that contains drug-resistant pathogens. A new law introduced in the House today aims to clarify what constitutes “adulterated” meat, thus giving the USDA the legal standing it needs to issue much-needed recalls.

See, the problem lies in the current definitions in laws like the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which describes “adulterated” meat as containing poisons, toxic pesticides, unsafe food additives, or contains any “deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance, such article shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in or on such article does not ordinarily render it injurious to health.”

So basically, since pathogens like salmonella are commonly found in chicken (which is why you don’t order your KFC medium rare), the USDA isn’t sure whether it can issue a recall on chicken for being tainted with salmonella.

The agency will shut down plants where the tainted birds come from, but the product that’s already out there? Well, just be sure to cook that chicken thoroughly.

This problem has been spotlighted during the past year by the outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg traced back to chicken produced by Foster Farms. So far, at least 601 Americans have fallen ill from this outbreak, but while the company’s plants were shut down, the Foster products continued to be sold because the USDA felt it did not have the statutory authority to do so.

In an effort to give the USDA the legal backbone it needs to get unsafe meat, poultry and eggs off store shelves, Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Louise M. Slaughter of New York are introducing the Pathogens Reduction and Testing Reform Act [PDF], which would amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act to explicitly include language that would add “microbial pathogen that is associated with serious illness or death” to the list of things that would determine whether one of these foods is indeed adulterated and worthy of a recall.

“The USDA has failed to recall meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens because they do not believe they have the legal authority to do so. This bill would ensure there is no confusion,” said Representatives DeLauro and Slaughter in a joint statement. “We urge Congress to pass this legislation before more Americans are sickened by contaminated meat, poultry, or egg products. We need federal agencies that will protect public health, not bend to the threats of deep-pocketed food producers seeking to escape regulation.”

Center for Science in the Public Interest food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal, who has been openly critical of the lack of recalls, applauds the legislation.

“CSPI believes USDA can act now to declare dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella to be adulterants,” said Smith DeWaal. “But since the agency claims it doesn’t have that authority, the legislation introduced today would remove any shadow of a doubt, and keep these particularly dangerous strains of bacteria out of the food supply.”

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