030213 USDA: Meat Plants Must Do More Against E.ColiFebruary 5, 2003
Washington - More than half the largest meat plants checked by the government had shortcomings in their plans for preventing harmful bacteria from contaminating meat.
A preliminary review showed 60% of 35 large plants had problems with their plans designed to prevent E. coli, the Agriculture Department's food safety administrator, Garry McKee, said Tuesday.
McKee described them as "scientific design issues and not food safety issues."
Steven Cohen, a department spokesman, said most of the plants faltered on keeping records up to date.
The department began checking plants last fall to ensure they follow written plans to prevent E. coli from contaminating meat. Plants that didn't follow their strategies were sent letters telling them to correct the problems within 30 days, Cohen said.
The government requires plants to write their own prevention plans, known as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point strategies, and stick to them.
"If plants don't conduct their hazard analysis correctly, or there's something wrong with their HACCP plan — the way that they reassessed it and so forth — there will be actions taken," warned Elsa Murano, the department's undersecretary for food safety.
Consumer groups and members of Congress have criticized the department for how it handled meat recalls last year, some of which were the largest on record and linked to several illnesses. ConAgra Beef in Greeley, Colo., for example, recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef after it was linked to an E. coli outbreak that sickened 22 people.
Carol Tucker Foreman, head of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, said plants are endangering public health in failing to adhere to their prevention plans.
"If there's a scientific design problem, either there's something wrong with the notion about what HACCP ought to be, or the HACCP notion is fine but companies are operating in such a way that they're going to have a food safety problem," she said.
By this summer, the department will complete its assessment of E. coli prevention plans at all plants, department officials said.
President Bush proposed spending $675 million on food safety next year in the budget he submitted to Congress on Monday. Murano said $5.5 million of that would finance training plant inspectors, $4.3 million would be spent to hire 80 new ones. The agency now has 7,610 inspectors.
In addition, $18 million would support the USDA's Office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness to defend against terrorists' attempts to taint the food supply.