Beef Packers Inc.’s recall of 825,769 pounds of ground beef possibly contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Newport draws attention to the United States Department of Agriculture’s role in the federal food safety system after last week’s legislative battle over Food and Drug Administration’s reforms.
“It points to the fact that while we are all involved in FDA reform, we have to keep an eye on the USDA,” said Donna Rosenbaum of the victims rights group Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P), who added that S.T.O.P would be pressing the USDA to address the prevalence of “alarming” antibiotic-resistant pathogens in the food supply.
Though Rosenbaum said it was unlikely that the recall would affect the upcoming debate over food safety legislation in the Senate, which largely deals with FDA reform, it reminds the food safety community of the need to “split time” focusing on the improvement of both agencies.
Over the last 25 years, the USDA has consistently said that it does not consider Salmonella an adulterant. Bill Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark, the leading food safety law firm in the country, commended Beef Packers Inc. (acquired three years ago by Cargill) for recalling the beef voluntarily because “legally they would be on a strong ground not to do so.”
Denis Stearns, also a partner at Marler Clark, noted that the recall was “surprising” and “inexplicable” considering the USDA’s previous admissions, in court-papers and in policy statements, that it lacks the authority to regulate the presence of Salmonella in meat products like ground beef. “That said,” Stearns added, “I most definitely think that the USDA should declare Salmonella an adulterant.”
According to food blogger Eddie Gehman Kohan, author of Obamafoodorama.com, the lack of authority is “an unfortunate policy leftover from previous administrations…despite big Obama [administration] movement in food safety, including new guidelines from President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group, and the recent passage by the House of a landmark food safety bill.”
In addition to alarm over the USDA’s authority over Salmonella, advocates remain concerned that the USDA’s top food safety post remained unfilled. “With the management of something like this, we need top down leadership,” said Rosenbaum, who emphasized that S.T.O.P. was “very, very concerned” about FSIS leadership.
Editor’s Note: Helena Bottemiller in Washington, D.C. assisted in the research and writing of this article.