Yesterday, Montana Senator Jon Tester introduced a bill to amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) to require the USDA to conduct traceback investigations whenever a pathogen (called an "adulterant" under the FMIA) is found in meat distributed, or intended for distribtuion, in interstate commerce.

(Incidentally, in case anybody ever wondered about the significance of "interstate commerce," it is effectively the jurisdictional hook that gives federal agencies (here the USDA) the power to enact and enforce regulatory measures.  Article 1, section 8, clause 3 states that the US Congress shall have the power "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."  This "commerce clause" has become a particularly potent regulatory enabler due, in large part, to the broad reach of the Constitution’s "necessary and proper clause," (Article I, section 8, clause 18) which authorizes the Congress "To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing powers," including the power to regulate interstate commerce.)

But back to the meat of Senator Tester’s bill.  The essential modifications to the existing regulatory framework set forth in the FMIA are two:  first, to trace any meat sample that tests positive for any adulterant back to its original source–not the cow or herd that originally harbored the bacteria, but the establishment that slaughtered and prepared the cow for introduction into the food supply.  And second, for any establishment that produces a product that does test positive for an adulterant, to require a 15 day (consecutive) period of product testing after the date on which the original positive test was generated. 

This is good legislation.  It’s certainly not the answer to the problem of contamination in our meat supply, but it helps sharpen our focus to the original point of contamination, which is a major step in forcing slaughter establishments to clean up their act.  By and large, these establishments will not do it on their own.  Almost two decades have passed since the Jack in the Box outbreak that put E. coli and beef on everybody’s radar screen, and companies like Nebraska Beef still treat the USDA, its regulatory framework, and its officials much like a fly buzzing annoyingly around its ear.  For the full story on the impunity with which Nebraska Beef has acted over the last decade, read this